AWL and Zionism

Party Notes by Jack Conrad

Sean Matgamna - patriarch of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - has recently issued another of his sectarian bulls. From now on no one within his disorientated circle should describe themselves as being “a little bit Zionist” (Solidarity September 4). Instead of such “stumbling mealy-mouthed-ness”, they ought to have the courage of their first-camp convictions. There are only “Zionists” and “anti-Zionists” - and the AWL is “Zionist”.

Writing as John O’Mahony - one of his many pseudonyms - the comrade argues that contemporary Zionism has a simple and unproblematic meaning. Whereas to be a Zionist used to refer to someone committed to solving the “gentile question”, which has plagued the “people without a state” for 2,000 years, with the establishment of a separate Jewish state, nowadays a Zionist is anyone who believes in “the right of Israel to exist and defend its existence”.

As a direct concomitant, to be an anti-Zionist is to call for the “destruction” of the Jewish state and logically to be anti-Jewish. Yes, bizarrely, in the name of championing “rational discussion”, the bulk of the left in Britain is charged by comrade Matgamna with anti-semitism. By contrast to this revolt against reason we characterise them rather differently - not as modern-day racists, but as economistic, utopian and inconsistently democratic.

Matgamna’s redefinition of Zionism is both ahistorical and thoroughly apologetic. Things develop from themselves and they do so according to their own logic. Zionism might imagine itself as the culmination of a 2,000-year struggle for survival against overwhelming odds. In reality, as Karl Marx pointed out, the Jews survived as a people-religion not in spite of history, but because of history.

Alike the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Arab caliphates, the medieval feudalisms and tsarist absolutism protected and reproduced the social position of the Jews. Intermittent persecution there was. However, in general, Jews occupied a subordinate, though not necessarily lowly, position within the interstices of pre-capitalist society.

Zionism comes into existence under specific historic conditions. Essentially it is a reaction to the vicious persecution of Jews unleashed by a rotting tsarism and then, and most decisively, the attempt, and near success, at exterminating the entire Jewish population in Europe perpetrated by Nazism. Zionism doubtless got another boost from the anti-semitism preached and practised by bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

Zionism was officially founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897 not only in a bid to escape anti-semitism, but as an alternative to Marxism and working class socialism: he fawningly explained to von Plehve, a tsarist police minister responsible for countless anti-semitic provocations and pogroms, that strengthening Zionism would weaken the revolutionary movement and vice versa. Unsurprisingly Lenin had little trouble in dismissing Zionism as “definitely reactionary” (VI Lenin CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p101).

Zionism was a secular but militantly anti-assimilationist ideology which insisted that Jews and gentiles could never live peacefully together. The solution lay in a separate Jewish state (Eretz Yisrael). This nationalism of the oppressed had a pro-imperialist sting in the tail though - it went hand in hand with promoting alliances with suitable big powers, crucially Great Britain. The dramatic influx of Jews into Palestine after World War I was possible only because of the British protectorate. The Balfour Declaration (November 2 1917) enshrined that sponsor-client relationship.

The Jews coming to Palestine in the 20th century were a settler-colonial people of a special type. There was no specific homeland - apart from the European continent as a whole. Moreover, inspired by thinkers such as Ber Borochov (1881-1917), many entertained notions of building a socialism. However, their socialist-civilising mission was in essence no different from British colonisation in Australia or New Zealand, or the Dutch in South Africa. The kibbutzim were communist-imperialist. Land might have been purchased according to the laws of the day. But the same can be said of the European colonists in America before and after 1776. There existed a completely unequal relationship between the colonists and the colonised.

The Zionist colonists rebelled against the colonial power after World War II and launched a violent struggle for independence. But that does not detract from the original colonial-settler nature of Israel. The first war against the British (United Nations mandate) colonial power was a combined war - against Britain, against the colonised.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1947 and the subsequent expansion of Israel in 1948 and 1949 witnessed numerous crimes against the indigenous Arab population. The desperate rearguard actions carried out by the Palestinian masses were undoubtedly just. Nevertheless Israel won its combined war. British troops departed. So did hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - they fled or were forcibly driven out. Nor were they allowed to return. The whole of Palestine was then dismembered by Israel on the one hand and Jordan and Egypt on the other. In 1967 there was another defensive-expansionist war by Israel. Since then the West Bank has been seeded with numerous military-settler colonial outposts in a drive designed to facilitate permanent occupation.

Put against this background, it is clearly a gross distortion to define post-independence Zionism as a mere innocent plea for Israel’s right to “exist and defend its existence”. What began as a colonial ideology of the oppressed has metamorphosed into a full-blown imperialist ideology of oppression. Avraham Burg, speaker of Israel’s knesset from 1999 to 2003, virtually admits as much: “The Israeli nation today,” he writes, “rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on the foundations of oppression and injustice” (The Guardian September 15).

So how to define modern-day Zionism? Zionism is the state ideology of Israel. As an official - ruling class - ideology Zionism not only retrospectively justifies the foundation of Israel, but seeks to perpetuate or extend the privileged position of Jews in that state. Zionism still possesses an international dimension. Zionist Jews - especially within the business elite - organise to promote close ties between Israel and the imperialists powers, most importantly the US.

Though comrade Matgamna darkly hints at blanket racist intentions, it is not surprising that Zionism as a “denunciation is usually used against Jewish people”. Non-Jews, such as George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, who support Israel are not Zionists: rather they are pro-Zionist. Zionism is a particular nationalism of the Jewish people-religion, which is no longer oppressed but in Israel is the oppressor.

In practice Zionism means privileging Jews and denying the right of the Palestinians to establish a viable independent state of their own. Indeed from the vantage point of government the most bellicose wing of Zionism cynically pursues ‘anti-terrorist’ policies designed not merely to preserve Israel as a Jewish state for Jewish people (Israeli Arabs are treated as second-class citizens). Ariel Sharon and his cabinet seem determined on a greater Israel: ie, the whole of Samaria and Judea. The new brand of religious Zionists justify this incorporation of the West Bank with reference to the bible and an entirely bogus Davidic kingdom. Ensuring a Jewish majority in their greater Israel assuredly means another bout of mass expulsions of Palestinians.

Communists - authentic communists, that is - have no wish to associate themselves with any such crime. Instead we strive to positively overcome all antagonisms between nations and bring about their eventual merger. That requires the right of oppressed nations to self-determination: specifically in conditions of Israel/Palestine, the right of the Palestinians, where they constitute a majority, to form their own state. Unlike comrade Matgamna, communists also support the elementary right of Palestinians - as individuals and families - to return to their historic homeland.

Communists oppose Zionism: we are anti-Zionist. Yet, though it might flummox comrade Matgamna, we favour a democratic, two-state solution. Over the last 50 or 60 years a definite Israeli Jewish nation has come into existence. Time matters. To call for Israel’s destruction is unMarxist. Such a programme is either naive utopianism or genocidal. The Israeli Jewish nation is historically constituted. Israeli Jews speak the same language, inhabit the same territory, have the same culture and share a common sense of identity.

Marxists do not deny the right of the Israeli Jewish nation to self-determination on the basis of some half-baked or perverted reading of classic texts. The right to self-determination is not a communist blessing exclusively bestowed upon the oppressed. It is fundamentally a demand for equality. All nations must have the right to determine their own fate - as long as that does not involve the oppression of another people. Communists recognise that the US, German and French nations should and do exercise self-determination. Communists merely desire to see that democratic gain extended to all nations.