Reality and dogma

John Rose - Israel: the hijack state - Socialist Workers Party, originally published 1986, republished 2002, 74pp

In the context of the second Palestinian intifada (which erupted as a result of the collapse of that American-brokered betrayal of Palestinian national aspirations known as the Oslo accord), and the rise to power of the butcher Sharon, with all that has meant for the Palestinian struggle, the Socialist Workers Party has seen fit to re-issue a key pamphlet. Israel: the hijack state, - written by John Rose, a former editor of Socialist Worker - lays out in some detail the reasoning and rationale behind the SWP's position on the Middle East. It is not some characteristically patronising 'agitational' piece, as are many of this vintage, but contains some serious, if flawed analysis, and thereby merits a considered response. It should certainly not be dismissed as a "notorious" tract, as comrades of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty have recently damned it - part of their years-long, eccentric campaign to portray the SWP and other leftists who deny Israeli jews have national rights as outright anti-semites. Such characterisations reflect not any Marxist critique of the SWP, but are merely a mirror-image of the SWP's own guilty-liberal inverted chauvinism - as expressed in its frequent equation of any criticism of islamist political movements, and their often bloody and reactionary actions, with racism and western chauvinism. The AWL's variant of this is an equally guilty-liberal conception: ie, that the historical suffering and genocide of jews at the hands of Nazis and other anti-semites dictates that jews can never be guilty of comparable crimes. Denunciations of Israeli politicians such as Sharon, for behaving in a manner reminiscent of the Hitlerites, as well as the admittedly overstated bald equivalence of the Israeli star of David with the Nazi swastika (which is increasingly common these days in Palestinian solidarity milieux), condemned by the AWL as anti-semitism. This is somewhat strange: after all, the swastika and Israeli emblems are compared as something ultimately evil and genocidal - however simplistic and overstated, hardly the mark of sympathies with Nazism! The minority of real anti-semites in the Palestinian movement are the likes of Hamas - which incorporates the anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in its charter. These various complementary and contradictory symbolisms and equations are thrown backward and forwards repeatedly in the context of the Palestinian struggle today. It may seem something of a digression to attempt to address them in this review, but in reality the issues involved are intimately bound up with those comrade Rose deals with. Indeed, the two sides of this heated but hardly illuminating kind of debate have a symbiotic relationship with each other in tailing the nationalism of the oppressed - or in the case of some, the nationalism of those who were formerly oppressed but in the current context have undergone a dialectical transformation into their opposite. This is certainly the case with Zionism, the ideology that still hegemonises, even if it does not solely constitute, the national consciousness of the main ethnic/religious group of the state of Israel: ie, Israeli jews. For it is the case that while the jews were undergoing rabid and genocidal persecution in Europe from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, Zionism was initially a mere semi-utopian (if reactionary) manifestation of the desire of an oppressed people for liberation from persecution, based on myths of a better existence in antiquity and the possibility of reclaiming that mythologised utopia in the modern world. In this context, there were many on the left in the period of the holocaust who were blind to the reactionary implications of the Zionist project for those unfortunate enough to be the main inhabitants of the Zionists' 'promised land': the Palestinians. Instead they were at least partially taken in by the 'progressive', 'anti-fascist', 'anti-imperialist' political posture that was characteristic of the mainstream of Zionism at that time. This epitomised a common enough problem on the left: that is, a tendency to lose sight of the historic interests of the international proletariat; to identify so completely with the struggle of particular sections of the oppressed that the reactionary elements present in all forms of nationalism are ignored, or dismissed as insignificant. If anything, the example of Zionism as a reactionary movement of now world-historic significance, that had its origins in such a misguided movement of an oppressed people, should stand as a warning against this kind of opportunism. Which is, of course, the relevance of Israel: the hijack state to this whole discourse. For this pamphlet contains within it a theorisation, with some pretension of coherence, which underlies the SWP's own blindness to early Zionism's modern-day analogue as a manifestation of a movement seeking a reactionary solution to oppression - the more unsavoury forms of Arab/muslim anti-Zionism, in particular political islam. This is extremely dangerous, since these reactionary movements of the oppressed have the potential to do as much damage to the historic interests of the working class in this century as Zionism did in the preceding one. Comrade Rose in fact acknowledges the near universality of pro-Zionist progressive opinion in the period of Israel's formation when he writes: ""¦ the merest hint that there was anything wrong would automatically revive the fear of Nazism. All challenges would carry the deepest suspicion that they were anti-semitic in intention. To interpret this only as a victory for Zionist propaganda is, in a way, to belittle jewish sensitivities" (p45). Comrade Rose then goes on to explain why this illusion gained such wide currency, from the closing of the 'democratic' imperialist states to jewish refugees to the sporadic anti-semitism and totalitarian terror of Stalin's Russia - which undermined the once-pervasive pro-socialist sentiments among European jewry. It does not take great genius to observe that similar perceptions and illusions drive those on the left today who equate virtually any criticism of the ideology, aims and methods of political islam with islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. It seems that some sections of the left are only able to recognise such problems with the benefit of hindsight. Much of comrade Rose' s pamphlet is, of course, unexceptionable. He elaborates at some length the squalid way that Zionists put their own movement's aims of cohering 'Israel' above the lives of many jews who were under the gun of Nazis and other persecutors; how the various Zionist leaders collaborated with the anti-semitic ministers of the tsar; and indeed how German Zionists sought 'collaboration' with Hitler with the aim of a 'national rebirth' of the jews along the lines of Hitler's own project; how as a result they denounced leftist agitation for a boycott of Nazi Germany. Comrade Rose also exposes how Zionists sought to stop the admission of jewish refugees to the US, in order to force them to go to Palestine. He goes into some detail about the infamous machinations of earlier Zionist leaders with the British, offering themselves as an 'effective guard' for the Suez Canal and other British interests. This, of course, led straight to the Balfour declaration, which gave imperial legitimacy to the Zionist project, even if the British were not always entirely happy with the results. Written in the aftermath of the Begin-Sharon bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and then the Reagan attack on Libya in 1986 (which was closely related to US hysteria over Libyan support for Palestinian 'terrorism' against Israel), the pamphlet lays out in detail the SWP's view of Israel as simply US imperialism's 'guard dog' in the Middle East. Indeed, comrade Rose tries to prove too much, so that instead of making his analysis fit the actual course of historical events, he ends up making the historical facts (and particularly, his view of their weight and significance) fit the SWP's current political line. Thus he projects Israel's current close alliance with and massive funding by the United States back through history, with the assertion that, "After the Second World War, the US replaced Britain as the world's dominant imperialist power. US ownership and control of oil supplies increasingly replaced British control. Simultaneously the US became Israel's primary sponsor when the British mandate crumbled in Palestine" (emphasis added, p17). Comrade Rose produces an impressive array of statistics detailing the increase in American funding for Israel in the 1980s, which rose from a net subsidy of $740 million in 1981 to $2,705 million in 1985: ie, nearly quadrupling in the aftermath of Begin's butchery in Lebanon (p22). This is, of course, indisputable, and it is a matter of record that such levels of funding have become pretty much the norm ever since. However, comrade Rose's own assertion that the US has been Israel's "primary sponsor" ever since "the British mandate crumbled in Palestine" is somewhat contradicted by a subsequent remark: "It was the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbours that most convinced the US that it had in Israel an utterly dependable ally"¦" (p24). Rose then goes on to quote a glowing pro-Israel memorandum from the US state department: "Israel has probably done more for the US in the Middle East in relation to money and effort invested than any of our so-called allies and friends elsewhere around the world since the end of the Second World War. In the Far East, we can get almost nobody to help us in Vietnam. Here the Israelis won the war single-handedly, have taken us off the hook, and have served our interests as well as theirs" (p24). All very well, but this hardly squares with the assertion that the US was Israel's "primary sponsor" since the end of British rule. Nor does the fact that the 1967 war, in which the rapid destruction of Nasser's air force on the ground by the Israelis so excited the state department, was carried out by Israel using French, not American, aircraft. Comrade Rose does not mention this, but attempts to manoeuvre around the problem by citing various exploratory and tentative US intelligence memoranda and the like about what alliances might be advisable and feasible, and the rather disingenuous assertion that in the earlier period (ie, before the Six Day War), "The exact military links between the US and Israel at this time remained a closely guarded secret" (p24). Such major world issues as Suez, where the British, French and Israelis' armed attack on Egypt blatantly contradicted US policy and wishes, are played down by comrade Rose. Thus, "The US at that time saw this move as counterproductive, and had to restrain Israel" (p24). Such a delicate way to describe an episode that saw the bringing down of a British prime minister by US-inspired humiliation, and also the US delegation join with the Soviets in denouncing this action on the floor of the UN, in effect being seen as siding with Egypt! Likewise, the crucial fact that Stalin's USSR played an important role in sponsoring the formation of Israel - both openly through diplomatic support, and militarily through the despatch of weapons for the embryonic armed forces through its Czechoslovak client state - is effectively ignored by comrade Rose. The political purpose is, to put it crudely, to push the erroneous notion that Israel is a US puppet state, pure and simple, and always has been. Or, as Phil Marshall's introduction puts it, "The struggle for Palestine is necessarily a struggle against imperialism. Because Israel is wedded to the US, it is also part of the structures of power in the Middle East region as a whole "¦" (p9). Effectively, this conception, read back through history, sanctifies all Israel's opponents as effectively progressive 'anti-imperialists', while at the same time minimising the potential of any progressive opposition within Israel. This simply justifies the de facto line of the SWP, which though it talks of the need for social revolution, of the need for mass action by the Arab working class, sees no role for the working class of Israel itself, and thereby crudely minimises the significance of dissent among Israeli jews themselves. Thus comrade Rose publishes various dubious snapshots of the views of Israelis: ""¦ surveys of Israeli opinion confirm that more than half of the Israeli population welcome Zionist settlement on the West Bank. Perhaps most strikingly of all, only one percent favour a political settlement with the Palestinians by withdrawal to pre-1967 borders" (emphasis in original, p71). This 1985 statistic - highly doubtful in its overall relevance in the light of the subsequent, admittedly sporadic, mass agitation by many left Israeli nationalist elements, who see such a goal as a way to ultimately preserve Israel - is quoted without comment in the introduction to the 2002 edition, as if it represented an ongoing reality. Likewise, the mass demonstrations in and after 1982 against Begin's butchery are minimised in terms of their significance thus: "Of course, there were brave souls in Israel who opposed the invasion of Lebanon and who tried to protest about it ... But it was the giant pro-government demonstration that caught the attention of the foreign press, with its ominous sign standing out from the others in red letters and many copies: 'One people, one army, one government'. A Hebrew-speaking journalist immediately translated it to her friends, pointing out its similarity to the Nazi slogan Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer. "The Israeli opposition Labour Party did nothing to stop the invasion of Lebanon. With just two exceptions, Labour voted with the ruling Likud party to support the invasion. This fitted exactly the mood of Labour supporters, 91% of whom backed the war. As the scale of killing grew, the 'Peace Now' movement, reluctantly supported by the Labour opposition, did call a 400,000-strong demonstration. But this was very much of a one-off affair" (p33). In a way, this utterly dismissive view of the likelihood of internal differentiation of Israeli society sums up the SWP's whole perspective - apparently the entire Israeli jewish working class as irremediably reactionary. A 400,000-strong anti-war demonstration in a country of seven million people is written off - yet proportionately it is the equivalent of a demonstration in Britain in excess of three million. Can one imagine the SWP dismissing analogous demonstrations here or in the US, given some major war crisis? I don't think so. Such massive demonstrations reveal a society riven with internal, potentially class-based, contradictions. Fertile soil for a left with a coherent position, able to resolve the question of Palestinian oppression and liberation in a manner that upholds the rights of all peoples. What a pity, as this pamphlet certainly shows, that the SWP is so politically ill-equipped, so riven with Cliff's New Left blind spot regarding the revolutionary potential of the Israeli proletariat, that it is manifestly incapable with its present politics of providing a lead in this regard. Ian Donovan