Beyond Zionism or continuing Zionism?
Tony Greenstein takes issue with just about everything in Jack Conrad's recent two part article on Palestine and the Arab revolution
There is a delicious irony in the CPGB’s recent spats with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty over Zionism. Despite the sectarian tit for tat over who invited whom, where and when, Jack Conrad demonstrates that on the question of Zionism there is a large measure of agreement with the CPGB’s political enemies. What is even more surprising is that Conrad’s articles are supposed to be a shift away from the 2001 CPGB, theses which were even more closely aligned with the AWL!
Both of Jack Conrad’s two articles on Zionism1 share a common feature with the AWL. They are written from the perspective of the oppressor and the settler-coloniser. They share little or no understanding of the present-day horrors that the Palestinian people are undergoing. Nor do they display any understanding of the nature of the Israeli state itself. Citing Nazi Germany and the holocaust at the beginning of the articles was a guarantee as to the direction they would take.
Zionism began, in the words of its founder, Theodore Herzl, as an “antidote to socialism”2 among Jewish people. Its starting point was a rejection of the enlightenment and Jewish emancipation. Its reaction to anti-semitism was an acceptance of its terms of reference. It began from what is termed a “negation of the diaspora”. The holocaust had little or no effect on Zionism, other than to furnish it with an ideological cleaver. During the holocaust itself the Zionist movement’s priority was statehood and to this effect it sought to relegate rescue to the sidelines. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and leader of the Jewish Agency at the time, spelt this out in a memo to the Zionist Executive in 1938:
“If the Jews are faced with a choice between the refugee problem and rescuing Jews from concentration camps on the one hand, and aid for the national museum on the other, the Jewish sense of pity will prevail ... We are risking Zionism’s very existence if we allow the refugee problem to be separated from the Palestine problem.”3
Rescue was to be to Palestine or nowhere. Until Eichmann in 1961 holocaust survivors in Israel were treated with contempt and referred to as “soap”.4 Even today the reparations obtained on their behalf have been fraudulently kept from them.5 The holocaust is about as relevant to the Israel-Palestine conflict as the British concentration camp of Mafeking was to apartheid in South Africa.
Despite the apparent differences between Jack Conrad’s position of two democratic, secular states in Israel and Palestine and the AWL’s support for a Zionist Israel, Conrad ends up accepting the AWL’s position that two states is a socialist position. Yet a two states position is, by definition, an imperialist solution to the conflict. It accepts the coloniser’s terms and imposes a solution that cannot, however it is dressed up or prettified, be other than a rerun of partition. Perhaps Jack Conrad can point to an area of the world that imperialism divided and ruled where partition was a success. Ireland? Cyprus? India? To ask the question is to answer it. Partition, as opposed to a free and voluntary separation of peoples, as in Czechoslovakia, is the most reactionary solution possible to the national question.
The weakness of Conrad’s politics, and their utter divorce from reality, can be seen from his reference to the “the two-state solution fought for by Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels and the First International”.6 This is disingenuous. Partition - the forcible division of one nation, on religious/sectarian lines - is confused with Irish reunification and the withdrawal of the British, politically and militarily. Of course Marx campaigned for a single-state solution to Ireland - ie, Irish unification - and likewise he would have opposed the British partition of the six counties in the north of Ireland. Any socialist worth their salt would condemn without hesitation the forcible division of Ireland in 1921 by Lloyd George and Churchill. To call Irish unification “two states” is itself a betrayal of an imperialist mentality. Was independence for Kenya also a “two-state solution”? Since when were the colonies part of a unified British state?
One of the problems that Sean Matgamna of the AWL and Jack Conrad of the CPGB illustrate is that political gurus pontificate on matters they know little about. This is a real weakness of the left when particular individuals in the leadership of small groups feel the need to apply their analysis in order to produce the ‘correct line’. In the October 12 debate between Moshé Machover and Matgamna in London, Machover’s opening comment was that Matgamna gave him a sense of déjà vu. His repetition of Israeli propaganda hasbarah of the 1950s - which has long been discredited by serious historians, Zionists included - formed the backdrop to his lurid scenarios of Jews in danger. Likewise Conrad gives no indication of having read, still less understood, anything around the subject. The mistakes in his article are legion.
It is not true any Jew can immigrate to Israel. Black Jews from Ethiopia (Falashas) and previously the USA cannot easily do so. The humiliating treatment of the Falashas, who have to be recircumcised, bears comparison with that of the Palestinians.
Israel’s close alliance with the USA dates from the 1967 war, not the early 1970s.
Iran’s Arab population is about 3%, not 1%, of its population and even that is an underestimate, since there has been large-scale intermarriage with non-Arabs.
We are told, in best BBC style, that “Uncompromisingly, the Hamas charter demands an end to the Zionist state of Israel and its replacement by a single Islamic state of Palestine.”7 The Hamas charter is about as relevant as the old PLO charter pre-1993. Hamas has made it repeatedly clear that it accepts a two-states solution.
Nor is it true that the PLO’s two-state position dates back to 1988. This simply illustrates Conrad’s lack of any involvement in the solidarity campaign. It was in 1974 that the PLO abandoned the ‘democratic, secular state’ goal in Palestine. They may have formalised it in 1988, but that is an entirely different thing. Internet research is a poor substitute for solidarity work.
The statement that “millions of Jews have migrated to Israel, learnt Hebrew, intermarried, had children, assimilated and made and remade the Israeli-Jewish nation ... The Israeli-Jewish nation alone inhabits the territory of Israel and uses Hebrew as its everyday language”8 demonstrates that Jack Conrad simply is ignorant of the distinguishing features of the Israeli state or Zionism. Thus any proposed strategy is inevitably going to be flawed. If millions of Jews had migrated to Israel and intermarried, then Israel would indeed be a society capable of transformation. Since Israel is one of the few states in the world where there is no civil marriage, it is difficult to see how millions of Jews can have intermarried!
The statement that “the Israeli-Jewish nation alone inhabits the territory of Israel” again betrays a woeful ignorance. In fact there are about 1.3 million Palestinians today living in Israel who are not part of the Israeli-Jewish nation.
The statement that the Galilee is among the places where “the vast majority of Israeli Jews live” is wrong. The Galilee’s majority population is Palestinian. That is why, in April 1976 a memorandum of the district commissioner for the Galilee, Israel Koenig, was leaked to the Mapam newspaper, Al Hamishmar. Koenig outlined a policy that the Israeli state has religiously followed: viz, one of “Judaisation of the Galilee” (there are similar programmes in the Negev and Jerusalem). This meant accelerating the confiscation of remaining Arab land: hence the ‘Day of the land’ demonstrations on March 30 1976 (and subsequently), when six Israeli Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli police. Not only were major tracts of Palestinian land confiscated, but there has been a continual attempt to raze ‘unrecognised’ Arab villages to the ground.
The mistakes are, however, merely incidental. It is the whole tone, analysis and approach of Jack Conrad that is the problem. His articles are written from a settler perspective. It is not true that it is only far-right or religious Zionists who embrace the Greater Israel idea. David Ben-Gurion and all who have succeeded him have been wedded to this concept. It is one of life’s ironies that ‘secular’ Zionists might reject god, but their reasons for settling Palestine were that god gave them the land! No matter that professor Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University, author of the best-seller When and how was the Jewish people invented? has just demolished all these ‘national’ myths.
It is not merely that any Jew has the right to aliyah, but that a Russian neo-Nazi, one of whose grandparents were Jewish, also has this right. Of course, Edward Said had no such right because none of his grandparents were Jewish. It is in fact the Nuremberg laws inverted. A two-state solution can only copper-bottom this. It is this racism, born of settler colonialism, which lies at the heart of the conflict in Israel-Palestine.
It is a fundamental mistake to see the conflict as arising out of a clash between two nations. Zionism was not a national movement: on the contrary it was always embraced by a minority among the Jews in the diaspora. Even the Palestinians were not a nation when the Zionists began their colonisation project. The Israeli Jews certainly were not a nation when the Zionist settlers sought, from the second aliyah of 1904 onwards, to exclude the Palestinians from the economy, the land and eventually the state altogether. This was not done because of their nationality, but because they were of a different ‘race’ from the Zionist settlers. They were not Jews.
Nor is it true that “Territorially Palestinian politics are cleaved between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the West Bank.”9 This is a BBC-style simplification. The reality is that Fatah and the Palestinian authority on the West Bank are armed, trained and funded by the CIA and Israel. Hamas, despite their politics, are at least seen as standing up to the Zionist enemy. Hamas itself, of course, was virtually the creation of Israel, in a time when western support of Islamic fundamentalist groups was seen as a weapon to be used against the left.10
What is most disturbing about Conrad’s article is its conscious parodying of AWL attacks on the anti-imperialist left. If the CPGB wishes to join the AWL in its contempt for any principled opposition to national chauvinism and imperialism, then let it say so clearly and unambiguously. Conrad writes: “Conventionally, in Britain at least, what passes for the mainstream left damns Zionism as almost akin to fascism.”11 Not true. I know no-one on the left who considers Israel a fascist country. It is a settler-colonial state or, in the words of the late professor Baruch Kimmerling of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, it is a Herrenvolk democracy for its settler racial elite and a police state for Israel’s Palestinians.12
It is one of the themes of the AWL, as it immunises its members, that the left “demonises” Israel as part of its “anti-semitism”. Conrad’s sub-Matgamnaite parody of the left states: “Ignoring the history, power, connections and wishes of the Israeli-Jewish population, there is the call for the abolition of Israel and its replacement by a single state of Palestine.”13 What does Conrad mean by “history, power, connections and wishes” of the Israeli populace? Certainly we do not ignore its history or the power that resulted. The connections are obvious and the wishes of the Israeli Jews, in so far as they involve oppression of the other, are not something to be taken into account when articulating a socialist solution. Or are the views of pogromists a matter of serious left debate?
No-one I know calls for the “abolition of Israel”. What does this mean concretely? Waving a magic wand and making it disappear, changing its name to ‘Palestine’? And into this heady brew the “single state of Palestine” is seen as the symbol of all that is wrong.
Where Conrad goes seriously astray is in his assertion that “At its most perverted, the call for the destruction of Israel by the left in Britain … blurs over into the kind of anti-semitism preached in the 19th century by Mikhail Bakunin.”14 No-one on the left calls for the destruction of Israel. We want to build, not destroy. What we do call for is the deZionisation of Israel, the dismantling of its structures of racism and oppression. But, even were we to call for the destruction of Israel, it would not blur into anti-semitism.
Again Conrad is simply unaware of recent debates and a significant shift by a segment of disillusioned Zionists in the direction of a single secular state. Even the more intelligent Zionists are beginning to realise that a state based on race is an anachronism.15
Hence today we have ‘Judaification’, whereas 70 years ago there were ‘deJewification’ programmes. Racism born of settler colonialism, expansion and confiscation define the conflict, not national antagonisms. Hence why Conrad’s prognosis that “The only realistic, progressive and humane programme must be based on a mutual recognition by both Palestinians and Israeli Jews of each other’s national rights”16 is a typical liberal panacea, both irrelevant and meaningless. “Mutual recognition” is the slogan of Zionist groups like the Union of Jewish Students. What does it mean? Whatever you want it to mean. The common understanding is that if only Arabs and Jews are brought together to sample each otherel’s food, wine and culture, then all will be fine. Personal misunderstanding is the cause of the conflict, not an imbalance in power and settler racism.
Conrad falls into an old, familiar trap. He equates the oppressed and oppressor. Even worse, he attacks supporters of the anti-imperialist struggle of the Palestinians: “… it is pertinent to ask exactly who is going to establish the single Palestinian state.” Indeed it is pertinent, but the question of agency should not be an excuse for supporting a variant on the status quo.
In South Africa no-one suggested that those who supported a unitary state were somehow anti-white racists (apart from the far right). Likewise in Israel those who support a unitary state, including growing sections of the Palestinians, are wholly opposed to the idea of military conquest to overthrow Zionism. With a rough equality demographically between Israeli Jews and Palestinians within mandate Palestine, there is no possibility of a military solution.
So who will be the agent of change? It is clear that Israel is supported by the west not because of a lingering guilt trip over the holocaust, but because Israel is a strategic asset, a watchdog over the west’s interests. When the oil runs out and when the Arab masses once again challenge the Arab regimes which are the junior partners of imperialism, then Israel’s very raison d’être will disappear. That is the context in which Arab revolution, Palestinian struggle and a growing but still small Israeli anti-Zionist current will lead to the realisation that the Zionist state is unviable. And like South Africa, a change in world opinion and sanctions and disinvestment will create a climate in which the more intelligent Zionists will realise the game is up.
Will Zionism therefore be overthrown against the wishes of the Israeli Jews? Yes, of course. Privilege has never been abolished with the consent of its beneficiaries, but that does not mean mass murder or destruction. On the contrary it is imperialism and its settler allies which have always been willing to shed blood by the bucketload.
When Conrad states that “No democratic solution can be won without the consent of Israeli Jews, or at least a considerable swathe of them”,17 he accepts the equivalent of the unionist veto. No settler colonial state has been abolished because the colonialists saw the error of their ways. Why should Israel be any different? For Matgamna all is excused by the holocaust. Does that hold true for Jack Conrad?
Conrad emphasises the need for the consent of the oppressor when he argues that “Both the Palestinian enemy within and the Palestinian enemy without engender a state of insecurity. Israeli Jews collectively and individually live alongside those whom they have dispossessed. Understandably, the Israeli-Jewish population feels under constant threat and therefore - frightened, insecure, maddened ... The hope is to crush or finally remove the Palestinians. An oppressor’s peace.”18
This is pure sophistry and apologetics. It is the Deutscher theorem of two rights. The Zionist settler was akin to the man jumping out of a house on fire only to land on the shoulders of the Palestinian whom he was scared to let rise. It is nonsense. Nothing prevents the Zionists from making peace, from secularising their state, from abandoning their racism. The obsession with demographic politics is endemic to the settler psyche. It is the racist obsession with numbers, the counting of heads, the differentiation into them and us. When 80% of Israelis say they will not admit an Arab into their house and 40% say that Arab culture is inferior and when books such as The Arab personality by David Bukay are part of a university syllabus, then we should call a spade a spade.
Racists are racist not because of fear, but because they consider it in their interests. Would Jack Conrad be indulging in apologetics for the Nazi-style racism of Israelis but for their Jewish origins? Would he have said the same of the Jim Crow laws or the British colour bar in Africa? How do ‘Arabs to the gas chambers’, the stoning of Arab children in Hebron or the destruction of Palestinian olive groves reflect the fear of Zionist settlers? Were the massacre of the villages of Tantura, Duweimeh and Deir Yassin and the butchery in Jenin recently an expression of fright? This is not fear and insecurity, but the hubris of the settler, the arrogance of racism.
Conrad writes that Zionism is “a nationalism sui generis”.19 What nation does Zionism represent? It claims the ‘Jewish nation’ as its constituency yet such a nation does not exist except in the minds of Zionism or anti-semites. The Israeli Jewish nation, if such it is, is a settler-colonial nation no different from the Afrikaners or Ulster protestants. Self-determination does not arise because it is not oppressed - it determines others. Such a ‘nation’, in the particular historical circumstances in which it is formed, defines itself through its oppression. Calling for two democratic, secular states is an exercise in word play. The very fact of a state in which Palestinians and Jews are separate erects a barrier against its secularism. What possible reason could there be for two states if they were not both confessional or sectarian?
Conrad argues: “… sadly for much of the left in Britain, what Israeli Jews want matters not a jot - the Hebrew nation is an artificial implant, an ally of US imperialism and from the start has oppressed the Palestinians. Therefore, so the argument goes, Israeli Jews have no right to determine the kind of state they wish to live under.”20
But the Zionist settler colonial state was an artificial implant. It has oppressed the Palestinians from the start. So of course Israeli Jews have no right to determine the kind of state they live in, because such a state cannot but be any other than a state for preserving the Jewish Volk.
Jack Conrad is right to say that most Israeli Jews want an oppressor’s peace and that two-thirds want to see the transfer of Israel’s remaining Palestinians. The question is why? All settler-colonial states seek to ‘purify’ their racial composition. In Nazi Germany it was called ‘racial hygiene’ (Rassenhygiene). In such a state the dominant settler group seeks to define itself against the other. We might as well take into account the ‘fear’ of capitalists when we speak of socialism!
A solution in Palestine, just as in Ireland, has to mean a unitary state in which both Israeli Jews (Hebrews) and Palestinians have equal social and political rights. Equal status for the Hebrew language, religious rights in the context of a secular state and cultural autonomy are the most obvious prerequisites of such a state. But today a separate education system, the reservation of 93% of land for Jews, the arbitrary and systematic deprivation of funding for areas where Palestinians live are part of the Israeli Jewish ‘national’ identity. Upon that there can be no compromise and a separate Jewish state in the context of Israel/Palestine will inevitably be a Zionist or sectarian Jewish state.
Jack Conrad’s wide excursion into the nature of pan-Arabism and the Arab nation is interesting, but the idea that Arabs are “binational”21 is an absurdity. In so far as there is an Arab nation, and there certainly was not such a political entity in pre-capitalist times, then the (Iraqi, Egyptian, Palestinian, etc) components are not nationalities, but subsets of a wider nationality.
The analogy with German unification and Prussian militarism is another absurdity. Germany rapidly became one of the major industrial powers in the world once it had a unified market. It was a frustrated imperialism. The Arab lands are dominated by imperialism. They are lacking in any major industrialisation and their economies are primarily based around oil or agriculture. That is why Palestine plays such a major part - the Zionist settlement in Palestine, coupled with the imperialist presence in the Arab east, prevented a bourgeois revolution of the kind that occurred within Europe with the formation of nation-states. Crass analogies hinder, not help, our understanding.
Conrad is right that there is a close relationship between the continued oppression of the Palestinians and the disunity of the Arab nation. But it is not that “the class struggle in Israel … is frozen or diverted”;22 nor is it a question of labour politics in Israel being that of a labour aristocracy. Israeli Jewish class struggle is indeed diverted because the Jewish working class sees that it gains real benefits through the super-exploitation and exclusion of the Palestinian working class. Zionism is nothing if not an intra-class alliance between a settler working class and its bourgeoisie, the cement for which is Israel’s unique role, being subsidised, but not exploited, by imperialism. This is a direct consequence of the Israeli state’s role in the region, a role in which the Zionist ‘trade union’, Histradut, was pivotal. As Gershon Shafir notes, “The most distinguishing characteristic of the Jewish labour movement in Palestine was that it was not a labour movement at all. Rather, it was a colonial movement in which the workers’ interest remained secondary to the exigencies of settlement.”23
Histradut formed the Israeli state and its army. Its slogan was “From class to nation” and the Arab working class was defined as the class enemy in this redefinition of class, not dissimilar to the ‘socialism’ of the Nazi Party.24
The choice in Palestine is between a unitary, non-sectarian, secular and democratic states or two states - both confessionalist or sectarian. That is the real choice and no paper exercise divorced from the real world will change that. Two democratic, secular states might differentiate the CPGB from all other political groups, but it makes no sense nor does it have any political purchase.
Socialists have to place themselves on the side of the oppressed rather than find excuses for the behaviour of the oppressor. When Israeli Jewish mobs on Jerusalem Day march through the Arab quarter shouting “Death to the Arabs” and “Arabs out”, whilst the police cast a benevolent eye, it is not fear or insecurity which prompt these attitudes, but a racism that owes its origins to the pogromists of tsarist Russia and the SA goon squads.
1. Weekly Worker November 20, 27.
2. M Weisgal (ed) The letters and papers of Chaim Weizmann Vol 3, Oxford 1972, p216, n195. See also L Stein The Balfour declaration pp10-11, New York 1961, pp577-78.
3. Y Elam Introduction to Zionist history Tel Aviv 1972, pp125-26, cited by M Machover, M Offenburg Khamsin No6. see also Ot, paper of youth cadre of Mapai, No2, winter 1967.
4. T Segev The seventh million New York 1993.
5. ‘Just 10 of 66,000 holocaust survivors’ heirs get assets back’ Haaretz July 7 2008.
6. Weekly Worker November 20.
10. Brendan O’Neill, ‘Making enemies: how Israel helped to create Hamas’ The American Conservative February 12 2007. See also: A Shlaim The iron wall New York 2000, p459.
11. Weekly Worker November 20.
12. B Kimmerling Politicide - the real legacy of Ariel Sharon London 2006.
13. Weekly Worker November 20.
15. See A Shavit, ‘Leaving the Zionist ghetto’ (Haaretz June 7 2007) on the position of Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and former chairman of the Jewish Agency; and M Peled, ‘Instead of fighting to end the occupation, we must bring an end to apartheid’ Palestine Chronicle December 2 2008. Peled is the son of former reserve general Matti Peled.
16. Weekly Worker November 20.
21. Weekly Worker November 27.
23. G Piterberg The returns of Zionism p63, London 2008.
24. See Z Sternhell The founding myths of Zionism Princeton 1998.