Get out of Zionist ghetto
Communists say national liberation is a task of the working class. Tony Greenstein takes issue with the left Zionism of Daniel Lazare
According to Daniel Lazare, not only are the politics of Moshé Machover and Djamil Lakhdar-Hamina “plainly shallow, ill-informed and anti-working class”, but my own politics too are “reactionary” and anti-working class.1 Accusing your opponents of being “anti-working class” seems to be the favourite choice of insult these days.
The irony is that in his diatribe against the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, it is Daniel Lazare who is anti-working class - or, more specifically, a social-imperialist and national chauvinist. He would have the Palestinian working class subordinate their demands and struggle to the racism and chauvinism of an Israeli Jewish working class that has never - not once - extended its hand to the Palestinians.
Lazare talks about an Israeli (Jewish)-Palestinian proletariat in his crude, workerist fashion. There is no such proletariat. There is an Israeli Jewish proletariat, which is largely separate from the Israeli-Palestinian working class (though on occasion, as Moshé Machover said in the February 13 Online Communist Forum debate, uniting on bread and butter issues), and there is a Palestinian working class inside Israel, as well as in Gaza and the West Bank (plus Asian guest workers, who have absolutely no rights).
Daniel Lazare constructs theoretical sandcastles which have no basis in reality and are testimony to his ignorance of actual conditions in Palestine. On a mundane level, Israeli Jewish workers participate in the oppression of the Palestinian working class and peasants and materially benefit from that oppression.
Even when there is a joint economic struggle, because the Israeli working class is militant on economic issues, they have never broken from the national Zionist consensus. In this they are no different from the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland or the white South African working class.
Lazare bizarrely treats the Histadrut in Israel as if it were a genuine workers’ trade union. I have already referred to Golda Meir’s assertion that it was a “great colonising agency” and to Pinhas Lavon’s statement that it was not even a trade union. It had a department for trade unions. Yet Lazare has chosen to ignore these points.
If he knew anything about the Zionist colonisation of Palestine, he would know that it was the organisations of the Jewish working class that were responsible for the creation of the Israeli state and indeed its bourgeoisie too. That was why for nearly 70 years Histadrut was also the largest employer after the state itself.
Histadrut came into existence with the campaign for Jewish labour (Conquest of Labour - kibbush ha’avoda): ie, a boycott of Arab labour. Yes, there were certain boycotts that the Jewish working class did support! They picketed Jewish companies which employed Arab labour. Their slogan was summed up by David Ben Gurion as “From class to nation”, which meant that the class struggle was not against Jewish employers, but against the Palestinian Arabs, workers included.
At the February 13 Online Communist Forum debate, which he addressed, Lazare mentioned the Union of Railway, Postal and Telegraph Workers - a bastion of the left, with a mixed Arab-Jewish membership. This was indeed a unique union, which had a mixed Arab-Jewish workforce for historical reasons. Ben Gurion was determined to break this union, and Histadrut incorporated it in order to separate Arab from Jewish workers and in the process break the left.2
The dilemma was expressed by one Histadrut official in 1920: “From the humanitarian standpoint, it is clear that we must organise them, but from the national standpoint, when we organise them we will be arousing them against us. They will receive the good that is in organisation and use it against us.”
Histadrut wished to increase the wages of the Jewish workers in order that Jewish workers would stay on the railways. They had two courses of action: joint working class solidarity between Jewish and Arab workers or a division of the workers into their national components. Histadrut chose the latter.
Ilyas Asad, an Arab workers’ leader, told his Jewish colleagues in March 1942:
I am striving to establish ties between the Jewish and Arab workers ... Many Arab workers do not wish to join nationalist organisations - they understand their purpose and do not wish to abet a lie. They saw on the membership card [of the railway workers’ union] the words ‘Federation of Jewish Workers’ [ie, the Histadrut] and they cannot understand what purpose this serves. I ask of all comrades to remove the word ‘Jewish’, and I am sure that if they agree a strong bond between us all the Arabs will join. I would be the first who would not want to join a nationalist labour organisation. There are many Arab nationalist organisations, and we do not want to join them, and they will say we have joined a nationalist organisation.3
So the very example Lazare cites in support of his case for Palestinian-Jewish working class unity proves the exact opposite. It was not as if Jewish communists and members of left Poale Zion did not fight for a united trade union, but Histadrut’s leadership was determined that there could be no working class unity.
Daniel Lazare fetishises the working class as a sociological category. I do not. Socialists have always supported the fight of black workers against racism, even when that meant coming into conflict with white workers in the USA and in this country. How much more so should we support the struggle of Palestinian workers against the alliance between Israeli Jewish workers and their own bourgeoisie? It is an utter social chauvinist who demands that the former does not raise their demands for fear of antagonising the latter.
Lazare’s position is reminiscent of Militant and the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain, which placed a premium on working class unity in Northern Ireland, regardless of the fact that the Protestant working class insisted that the national question, the oppression of Catholic workers, was not raised. In so doing they ignored the very partition which divided them.
What marks out settler-colonial states from ‘normal’ bourgeois states is the alliance of the settler working class with its own bourgeoisie. This is true even when, as in Ireland, the material benefits are nugatory. How much more so is this the case when, as in Palestine, there are major material differences between Jewish and Palestinian workers? I support the working class for itself, not in itself. This crude workerism ends up, as Lazare does, supporting an Alliance for Workers’ Liberty-style Zionist position.
Lazare seems incapable of understanding that Palestinian workers are superexploited, both as workers and because of their nationality. They are subject to military law, with all that that entails. Histadrut was a participant in that oppression, receiving a portion of the wages of Palestinian workers from the occupied territories for social benefits, whilst refusing to organise them or indeed provide the benefits that they paid for.
I agree with Moshé Machover and Mike Macnair that BDS is largely symbolic. It is the rallying cry around which people can express their solidarity. This is particularly true in the cultural field, where artists boycott Israel because of its apartheid oppression. I welcome this.
It is, of course, possible that in the future BDS will become more than symbolic, as it did in South Africa. Of course, if BDS were effective, that would affect Israeli Jewish workers, who enjoy their privileges at the expense of Palestinian workers and who identify first and foremost with their own ruling class. So what? The alternative is colluding in the oppression and exploitation of Palestinian labour.
The ‘Theses on the Eastern Question’ of the 4th Congress of the Communist International declared:
The formation of exclusive European communist organisations in the colonies (Egypt, Algeria) is a concealed form of colonialism and is an aid to imperialist interests. The formation of communist organisations on national lines is a contradiction of the principle of proletarian internationalism.4
The head of the Palestinian Communist Party delegation to the Congress, Haim Auerbach, was told by the head of the Comintern’s eastern section, Karl Radek, to get out of the “Zionist ghetto”. Yet it is precisely this ghetto that Lazare instructs Palestinian workers today to enter, even though it is impossible.5
It is not only because of the weakness of the Palestinian struggle that socialists should support it as a priority, but because of the role of Israel as a linchpin of the imperialist presence in the Middle East. In a piece of ‘whataboutery’, Lazare points to the barbaric nature of the Saudi regime, as if the continued existence of this monstrosity has nothing to do with Israel and imperialism. Supporters of apartheid in South Africa did the same, when they pointed to the human rights record of surrounding black states as a means of negating support for the anti-apartheid struggle.
Communists realise that the national liberation struggle will never achieve full victory under the leadership of bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces. It is a task for the working class. The struggle against national oppression is also a social struggle. To abandon the former in order to achieve a false unity with Jewish workers is to fail to understand why the working class is divided.
Moshé Machover was perfectly correct when he described Daniel Lazare during the debate as a left Zionist. Lazare began not with the house demolitions, land confiscations, murder of Palestinian children, the pogroms and all the rest, but with the ‘anti-Semitism’ of Hamas. Yes, Hamas is politically reactionary. So was Haile Selassie, when Trotsky supported him against Mussolini.
Anyone who has any involvement in the struggle against Zionism knows that this is the theme tune of the Zionist chorus and their Christian Zionist supporters. They reference Hamas’s charter, which did contain anti-Semitic formulations, but which was always a dead letter. Five years ago it supplemented its original charter and made it clear, in the words of Ahmed Yusuf, that it would “differentiate between Jews as a religious community, on the one hand, and the occupation and Zionist entity, on the other”.6
Hamas is a conservative Islamic organisation, but to focus on attacking it and mention nothing about the fascists and racists who control the Israeli government, which advocates the transfer and subjugation of the Palestinians, illustrates where Lazare is coming from.
Hamas’s ‘anti-Semitism’ is a classic example of the reflective racism of the oppressed. Perhaps we should concentrate, when it comes to the United States, on the use of ‘honky’ as a pejorative slur on white people, or the use of the slogan, ‘One settler, one bullet’, by the Azanian Peoples Front? The Irish peasants also spoke in racist terms about English colonisers. Socialists, however, understand that racism is not a matter of words, but actions. Anti-racism has been reduced by the politics of identity to giving offence and the politics of the personal and in the process it has been depoliticised.
Racism for socialists is the exercise of structural political power in pursuit of systematic discrimination against a particular group. It expresses the capitalist desire for a division of labour. Without political power racist language is no more than prejudice. Hamas borrowed its formulations from European anti-Semites without either understanding them or implementing them. Jewish solidarity activists have gone to Gaza without any harassment. Amira Hass lived there, as have other Jews. It is a nonsense to focus on ‘anti-Semitism’, when the real question is anti-Palestinian racism.
Daniel Lazare is opposed to BDS because it will ‘hurt’ Israeli Jewish workers. When Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan opposed BDS in South Africa, at least they expressed their opposition as concern for the black majority!
‘Path to nowhere’ Weekly Worker January 20 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1379/path-to-nowhere.↩︎
G Piterberg The returns of Zionism Verso 2008, pp71-74.↩︎
Z Lockman, ‘Railway workers and relational history: Arabs and Jews in British-ruled Palestine Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol 35.↩︎
J Franzén, ‘Communism versus Zionism: the Comintern, Yishuvism and the Palestine Communist Party’ Journal of Palestine Studies Vol 36 No2.↩︎
Middle East Eye April 29 2017: www.middleeasteye.net/fr/news/hamas-reforms-founding-charter-bid-end-international-isolation-1384144098↩︎