Two nations and the Arab revolution
The February 28 aggregate of CPGB members began a renewed debate on the question of Israel-Palestine. Peter Manson reports
In May 2002, the CPGB adopted overwhelmingly a set of 26 theses advocating a two-state solution to be fought for and won from below (see Weekly Worker May 16 2002 for the adopted theses and report of the debate).
Since then, however, two developments have necessitated a revisiting of this question: first, the recruitment of a number of new comrades, some of whom are not convinced by the majority position; and, second, the acceptance of the need to locate demands for Israel-Palestine more firmly in the broader context of global politics, including, of course, the politics of the entire region.
Over the recent period CPGB writers have pointed out that a solution cannot be achieved in the absence of a movement beyond Israel-Palestine. The balance of forces - the Zionist state armed to the teeth by US imperialism and currently enjoying overwhelming support for its brutal anti-Palestinian policies from Israeli Jews - needs to be addressed. In particular, two articles by Jack Conrad identified a pan-Arab revolution as necessary in order to dramatically shift the balance of power (‘Beyond Zionism’, November 20 2008; ‘Arab agency and a Marx-Engels analogy’, November 27). Moshé Machover (not a CPGB member) has also advocated an Arab revolution, arguing in these pages that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be achieved within the borders of ‘historical Palestine’ (‘Breaking the chains of Zionist oppression’, February 19).
In introducing the debate at the aggregate, I both defended the thrust of the May 2002 theses and pointed to their inadequacy. Their two major strengths lie, firstly, in the historical siting of the conflict - European anti-semitism, the reactionary response of Zionism and the failure of the left to combat it correctly; the overbearing injustice of the expulsion and oppression of Palestinian Arabs in order to found Israel, with the connivance of both imperialism and ‘official communism’.
The second major strength of the theses is their recognition of things as they actually are, rather than how we would like them to be. The founding of the Zionist state has led to the development of two new nations: the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews. As comrades Conrad and Machover have pointed out in their articles, the Palestinian nation came into being as a response to Zionism; it was defined negatively by Israeli repression. Like the Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs speak a common language and share a common territory, culture and identity.
However, there are objections on the left to our approach. The first objection is that Jews cannot be a nation because they are ‘a religion’. This is completely misplaced.
While Judaism and Jewishness are, obviously, closely connected, the latter is not defined by the former. When it comes to nationhood, the key element is a common territory, which facilitates the development of a common economy, language, culture and identity. It is the common territory of Israel that has bound the Jews living there (around a third were born in the country) into a nation.
Neither do the Zionists specify religion as the key component of what they absurdly call the ‘Jewish nation’. For Zionism, every Jew of every nationality, irrespective of their religion (or lack of it), their language and their culture, belongs to this mythical ‘nation’. Jewishness is an ethnicity, passed on maternally, they say. For example, even though I was brought up as a Christian and soon became an atheist, for Zionists I too am a Jew with the right to ‘return’ to Israel by virtue of my Jewish mother.
So the actually existing Israeli Jewish nation is something totally different from the imaginary ‘Jewish nation’ of Zionism and, what is more, is not defined by religion. There are very many Israeli Jews who are not at all religious. So when we recognise the existence of the Israeli Jewish nation and its right to self-determination, we are not arguing for that right to be granted to ‘a religion’.
It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to criticise the term, ‘Israeli Jewish’, as being too easily confused in this way. However, the alternative used by comrade Machover and advocated by several comrades at the aggregate - ‘Hebrew’ (or ‘Hebrew-speaking’) - is not perfect either. Hebrew is a language and is not necessarily restricted to either ethnic Jews or inhabitants of Israel. Whatever term we use, though, a strategy for Israel-Palestine that does not acknowledge this nation’s existence is a non-starter.
The second objection to our two-nation approach is that, since the Israeli state is founded on the oppression of another people, it is illegitimate. The Israeli Jewish people, therefore, whether or not they are considered a nation, cannot have national rights - or at least the right to their own state.
There is a very big problem with this argument. Just about every nation that exists on the planet came into being as a result of the oppression of another people - all nations have been defined in opposition to ‘the other’. Does not the United States owe its existence to the ruthless, genocidal obliteration of native Americans? Do we then argue that the American nation is ‘illegitimate’?
No, we must deal with things as they are today. The existence of two rival nations with a claim to the same territory is hardly unique. But we cannot resolve the problem by attempting to wish away one of them.
Why do communists champion the self-determination of nations? We do so in order to resolve the national question democratically and enable class struggle to be brought to the fore. We are for the unity of nations, for the end of borders, yet at the same time we defend national rights. A contradiction? No, because the unity of nations can only be achieved on a voluntary basis.
Based on such voluntary unity, we are for the formation of the largest possible states that circumstances allow. Similarly our preference is for centralised states, but we may advocate federation - as in Britain, where we call for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales.
We may even advocate separation - and again the British Isles provides us with an example. We demand an end to the occupation of Northern Ireland, its separation from Britain and the creation of a united, federal Ireland. It is well known that given changed circumstances Marx and Engels changed their approach on the question, advocating a federal republic uniting Britain and Ireland and two independent states.
We recommend that self-determination be exercised in favour of separation only in very exceptional circumstances. In the case of Ireland, this was for a time regarded by Marx and Engels as the precondition for undermining anti-Irish chauvinism in the working class in Britain. Immediate separation may be necessary in order to lay the basis for eventual unity on a voluntary basis.
Returning to Israel-Palestine, two separate states is a precondition for ending the anti-Arab chauvinism that dominates the Israeli population. Most have been won to the idea that the sea of hostility that surrounds them can be combated only by continual repression of the Palestinians or, worse, some imagined ‘final solution’ to ‘remove’ the Palestinians altogether.
Israelis today just will not accept a shared state in which they and the Palestinians have equal rights. Indeed more and more of them want to see the expulsion of the Arab minority from Israel. No less to the point, there is a Palestinian national movement which demands the creation of an independent Palestine. The problem is, however, the two-state ‘solution’ that has been on offer from US imperialism and the quartet involves, at best, the Gaza strip and a cantonised West Bank which makes a complete mockery of Palestinian self-determination.
Communists demand a contiguous Palestinian state not restricted to Gaza and the West Bank, incorporating all areas where Palestinian Arabs form the majority. Compensation must be made in the form of reparations for the horrendous expulsions, slaughter and oppression suffered by the Palestinians over the last six decades and those who wish to return to their former territory - whether in the Palestinian or Israeli state - must be allowed to do so.
The Israel Jewish nation-state we envisage will be nothing like the current Israel with its Zionist basic laws and in-built project of colonial settlement. That must be dismantled. There can be no exclusivism, based on the denial of rights to other peoples. There must be full democratic rights for all minorities within the borders of both states, and complete abolition of religious privileges. In other words, we are for a democratic, secular Palestine existing alongside a democratic, secular Israel.
It goes without saying that a single democratic, secular state, where Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab coexist in harmony, would be infinitely preferable to two separate states. But such a unified state cannot realistically be achieved even in the medium term - and not only because of the attitude of the Israeli population.
That brings me to the flaw in our current position. Thesis 19 reads:
“Progressive Israeli Jews must champion the democratic rights of the Palestinians to a separate state. Progressive Palestinians must likewise champion the rights of Israeli Jews to a separate state. Only on such a reciprocal basis is it possible to overcome national antagonisms and envisage the eventual unity of these two peoples (perhaps first of all in some kind of federation).”
That is all very well, but is it realistic to expect the majority of Israeli Jews to renounce Zionism and champion Palestinian rights? I do not think so. Thesis 16 contains the sentence, “Nor do we dismiss the broad mass of the population in Israel as ‘labour aristocrats’.” This is profoundly mistaken. Precisely because of Israel’s position in the current international pecking order - it receives huge amounts of economic, military and other aid from the United States - the mass of Israeli Jews enjoy a privileged position, especially compared to Palestinian Arabs. The Israeli working population can indeed be described as “labour aristocrats”.
We cannot expect even a substantial minority of Israeli Jews to fight for Palestinian rights while Israel remains a key client-state of the US. They do not regard the reliance on America as something to be ended. US imperialism is the guarantor of their superior material conditions - as against what are viewed as the Arab hordes bent on depriving the Israeli population of just about everything.
This perception of the Arab masses is something that Zionism is keen to maintain. From the start the Israeli ruling class has tried (successfully) to undermine every democratic and secular movement of Palestinians. Do not forget that Hamas was originally sponsored by Israel in order to fulfil that role. It is in Zionism’s interests to portray Palestinians, and Arabs in general, as backward, religious bigots who want to ‘drive the Jews into the sea’. Often political Islam has done its best to bring reality into line with the Zionist caricature of it.
The anti-Arab prejudice rife among Israeli Jewish workers has a material source: the overwhelming dominance of United States power and their own resulting position as labour aristocrats. Communists must consider how this situation can be overcome.
Simply waiting and hoping for the US to cut off Israel is a hopeless scenario. One might still be waiting 100 years from now. No, we must find another way to change the balance of power in favour of the working class and oppressed. The Palestinians themselves cannot on their own overturn the might of Zionism/imperialism.
But there is a hugely powerful potential counterbalance to the Zionist/imperialist alliance in the shape of the Arab masses in 25 different states stretching from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. The reunification of this putative nation, if driven from below under the leadership of the working class, would see a force capable not only of standing up to Zionism/imperialism, but actually defeating it.
The emergence of such a counterbalance would provide the Palestinians with a realistic prospect of overcoming their national oppression. Just as important - it would demonstrate to the Israeli masses that there is an alternative centre of gravity to be reckoned with. But, as far as possible, the Arab revolution must not be viewed as a threat. A single Arab republic across the whole region, whether centralised or federal, must specify full rights - up to and including secession - for all non-Arab national minorities. The Israeli Jews must be guaranteed the right to have their own democratic, secular state.
Such a strategy must be seen as inseparable from the rebuilding of our working class and communist movement across the globe - in reality, unless such rebuilding is undertaken, we cannot hope to mount a sustainable challenge to capital anywhere. At the very least, support for this strategy, to the extent that it started to bear fruit, would create tensions and divisions within Israel and open up the possibility of a break with Zionism.
After my opening speech there was an extended debate at the aggregate - with comrades James Turley and Yassamine Mather, who are both comparatively recent recruits to the CPGB and have criticised the majority position, opposing large elements of the original theses.
Comrade Turley wondered what made the majority believe that, while the Israeli Jews would reject a single democratic state, they would be prepared to embrace two democratic states. He said that there was no two-state solution acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, since both peoples are essentially in dispute over the same territory.
Comrade Mather said it was impossible to ‘deZionise’ the Israelis, although she accepted that there was a Hebrew nation. She rejected the term ‘Israeli Jewish nation’, since we must “get away from the idea that religions can have the right to a nation”. She asked why it was considered reasonable to advocate separation for Israel/Palestine, while the CPGB opposes independence for Scotland.
Nick Rogers also thought there was no way the Israelis would accept Jack Conrad’s solution of two states within an Arab republic. He stated that an Arab or Middle East solution was for the future, not now, so two states should not be specified among our immediate campaigning demands. He questioned whether we should still demand “federations based on nationality”, as in a pan-Arab republic. After all, we do not oppose moves towards the multinational European Union adopting state form.
Sachin Sharma asserted that it was not the business of the communists to talk about setting up states. That was a “programme for the bourgeoisie, not the working class”. Keith Nathan suggested that debates about national self-determination perhaps belonged to the 19th century. The Zionist state was simply not sustainable, and meanwhile Palestinians had been ethnically cleansed in their hundreds of thousands. Jim Moody said that the demand for two states was “an abstraction too far” - it was a “kind of Balkanisation”. Furthermore he did not like the call for Arab unity, which he considered divisive in the context of the Middle East.
Mike Macnair, like comrade Moody, was uncertain about the viability of a pan-Arab republic - he thought that an Arab republic based on the territory of Ottoman Syria, with national rights for the Hebrew-speaking minority, would have more purchase. He explained why in his opinion ‘Hebrew-speaking’ was a better term than ‘Israeli Jewish’: whereas there could be no democratic right to insist on a government of one’s own religion, there was a right to be governed in one’s own mother tongue.
Like comrade Rogers he thought we should prioritise the “immediate demands of the solidarity movement”. This was because wrong slogans about Israel-Palestine “grossly miseducate” the working class movement about slogans at home. First and foremost among those slogans were: ‘Complete and unconditional withdrawal from the occupied territories’. If Israeli forces were driven back to pre-1967 borders that would undermine the notion of continued Zionist expansion.
Comrade Phil Kent stated that two states was not a solution in itself: the key was self-determination. He favoured the right of Palestinians to return to the land of their birth, but he reminded the meeting that there should also be a “right to leave”, with assistance for those who did not want to remain within another nation’s state.
Also on the right to return, Anne McShane pointed out that working class Israelis were amongst its fiercest opponents - they feared being undercut by cheaper labour, whereas the more well off were not so concerned. She questioned the need for an outside agency to help set up a state.
Jack Conrad stated that what the current CPGB debate was all about was how to master politics. It was not so much the case of proposing solutions that the masses in the Middle East would adopt as training ourselves and hopefully teaching others in the process.
He insisted that the term ‘Israeli Jewish’ does not refer to religion and that national rights imply a common territory - which was why ‘Jewish nation’ was a nonsense. He agreed that the mass of Israeli Jews could accurately be described as “labour aristocrats” - they make common cause with the Israel Jewish bourgeoisie and the Zionist state against Arab Palestinians in defence of privileges.
Their hostility to the Palestinians, combined with the strength of Zionism and imperialism, meant that there was no solution within Palestine alone. That is why it was essential to look for an outside agency to alter the balance of power in the shape of the Arab revolution, which, far from being an abstraction, is recent history in the form of Nasserism, Ba’athism, the United Arab Republic and so on.
It was clear that, although virtually everyone now disagreed with parts of the 2002 theses, we are very far from a consensus on their replacement. The debate will continue, including within the pages of the Weekly Worker.
The aggregate also discussed the drive to raise an extra £500 a month in standing orders to equip the CPGB and Weekly Worker with the wherewithal to step up our work in the face of capitalism’s economic crisis and the bankrupt political response of the bourgeoisie.
National organiser Mark Fischer, in opening the discussion, stressed that, unlike the rest of the left, the CPGB stresses principled Marxist unity as the only possible basis for a working class response. Yet, despite the renewed interest in Marx, even among the bourgeoisie, the left is in decay.
The Weekly Worker is essential in promoting the single Marxist party that the working class needs. He noted that many of our approximately 20,000 online readers have gone from studying our paper grudgingly, because of the information it contains, to reading it with sympathy.
However, we are badly handicapped by our lack of finance. At present we spend just about every penny we get in dues, donations and subscriptions to the paper. Every year we run into debt, which is paid off after our annual Summer Offensive fundraising appeal. But we need bigger, better premises and more efficient office equipment. We need to radically improve our website (soon to be relaunched), making it more proactive and responsive.
In the debate, comrade Conrad emphasised the political nature of the drive - we should not be content with getting people to donate, but should attempt to organise them politically. Tina Becker said we must aim to recruit comrades more confidently and energetically and ensure that they are inducted speedily into the party. Ben Lewis pointed to the success we have had in winning students.
The discussion developed into a wide-ranging debate about the quality of the paper, improvements to the website, the development of international contacts and the type of meetings we hold, among other things.
The drive to win extra standing order donations will now be stepped up, with a team of comrades approaching hundreds of our contracts over the coming weeks.
The meeting concluded with a motion from Nick Rogers, who proposed that comrade Ben Lewis, who was elected to the Provisional Central Committee in December 2007 as a candidate member, be elected a full member with immediate effect. This was unanimously agreed.
Consideration of the second part of comrade Rogers’ motion - that PCC candidate membership be abolished - was deferred to the April aggregate due to lack of time.