Self-determination is not an abstract principle

Tony Greenstein responds to Jack Conrad and calls for a public debate

I am slightly bemused as to why, six months after my article, ‘Beyond Zionism or continuing Zionism’ (Weekly Worker December 11 2008), itself a reply to his own two previous articles, Jack Conrad should take up the cudgels again.

I was apparently guilty of putting “transparently false arguments” into his mouth, twisting intending meanings, dishonest quote-chopping, “refusing to deal with [his] substantive arguments” and “playing silly nit-picking games” (‘The debate on Israel-Palestine assessed’, May 14). It would appear that I didn’t miss a trick in the Stalinist archive!

Unfortunately comrade Conrad is guilty of some of the very failings he attributes to me.

Jack Conrad wrote two long articles in what was clearly a debate aimed at changing existing CPGB policy. I therefore contributed towards that debate, since we all have the social-imperialist politics of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty as a warning before us. A ‘Marxist’ group which supported the occupation of Iraq, supports Zionism and its bastard offspring, Israel, even to the point of a nuclear attack on Iran, and whose attitude to national liberation struggles is judged from an imperialist perspective, the AWL uses the racist demonisation of Islam as if the phenomenon of the oppressed turning to religion is a unique occurrence.

If I did not make it clear - and that is sometimes the price of sharp polemics - let me do so now: I do not consider the CPGB and AWL to be politically similar. However, I also do not want the CPGB to go the way of AWL. It is not unknown for revolutionary groups, under the pressures that we all experience living in the heart of the beast, to move to the right and adapt to existing circumstances.

The call for “two democratic, secular states” in Palestine is a dangerous nonsense which concedes that Jews and non-Jews cannot live together in one state. It rejects class politics and accepts the framework of debate that Zionism has set, that there has to be a Jewish majority state. There is no comparison between Norway and Sweden, Slovaks and Czechs.

The right of nations to separate, though regrettable, is preferable to national oppression. However, it is not the national oppression of the Palestinians which is at the heart of the conflict in Israel/Palestine today. It is the settler-colonial domination of the Arabs of Palestine. When Zionist colonisation began in the early 1880s, there was no Palestinian nation. That came as a result of what happened.

I make no apologies for seeing the warning lights in sentences such as “the call for the destruction of Israel by the left in Britain - as noted above, long since abandoned by Fatah and the PLO - blurs over into the kind of anti-semitism preached in the 19th century by Mikhail Bakunin. Eg, under Gerry Healy (1913-89) …” This is a confusion of two things.

There is incidentally a world of difference between seeking the “destruction of Israel” and destroying the Israeli state. The former implies all those living in Israel. The latter refers to a state - a body of armed men in Marx’s analysis.

There is nothing anti-semitic or racist in calling for the destruction of the Zionist or indeed apartheid states. That has nothing to do with the Workers Revolutionary Party’s anti-semitism. The WRP for a long time operated as an arm of the Arab bourgeoisie. It was not a part of the labour movement. Any group which could spy on communists on behalf of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq is a deformed and hideous creature.

Yet this was exactly the type of formulation that the AWL started with. Through a process of debate it too ended up at a Zionist position of two-statism. A position that cannot help but be a neo-colonial solution.

Jack Conrad objects to my pointing out errors in his article. I did not do this as some kind of point-scoring exercise, but because of a practice in socialist organisations of having ‘gurus’ who develop the theory of the organisation and apply it to areas where they have little or no knowledge. Jack has not been involved in Palestine solidarity or anti-Zionist work in Britain. If he had, then he would understand that no-one argues in favour of an attempt to “drive the Jews into the sea”. This is Zionist mythology. I have simply never heard it.

No doubt some feudal Arab reactionary can be found who did indeed say this, but it has never been part of any Palestinian group’s programme. Just as white racists in southern Africa believed that black Africans would murder them and their children in their sleep, so Zionists believe the Arabs will drive them into the sea. The fantasies of the coloniser are superimposed upon those they oppress. In fact the only incident of anyone being driven into the sea was the Arabs of Haifa in 1948, who literally fled in boats to escape the Zionist military gangs, and many drowned as a result.

I would be far more impressed if there had been any mention of the favourite slogan of the Israeli right and far right, as exemplified by Yisrael Beteinu, the party of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman: ‘Death to the Arabs’. This is the slogan which does resonate throughout Israel, yet Jack Conrad seems oblivious to it.

What Jack calls the “strongest” part of my argument - namely what happens when the oil runs out - was anything but. There are indeed many scenarios in which the Arab masses may rise up against their rulers and this is just one of them. In fact the decline of oil may lead to its substitution by other forms of energy rendering oil less valuable. On the other hand, it may well be that a successful rising in one part of the region triggers similar waves of struggle in other parts, forcing Israel to intervene. It may indeed be that an Israeli attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians results in such fierce reactions in the Arab east that the USA considers its protégé is now more of a liability than an asset. These are all scenarios, none of which it is possible to predict.

What I do think is becoming clear is that sections of the US ruling class are undertaking a re-evaluation of their reliance upon Israel. In the wake of Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s essay, ‘The Israel lobby’, three years ago, there has been an increasing debate within that class and articles printed in places like the New York Times that never previously saw the light of day. Even Obama has shown a coolness to Israel, which is in stark contrast to his predecessor. I am not suggesting that Israel is near to becoming orphaned, but it is clear that there is a debate taking place in the US ruling class as to the place Israel should occupy in its imperial schema.

Jack Conrad considers that I am mangling his words and ideas when I criticise his statement that “Conventionally, in Britain at least, what passes for the mainstream left damns Zionism as almost akin to fascism”. Well, this curious formulation is of a type with the AWL’s allegation that the left ‘demonises’ Israel.

And what is his proof? Jack Conrad repeats the same hoary myths that the AWL came out with when he refers to various left groups (which ones?) which sought to no-platform Zionists in the 1980s as a result of “numerous motions” which equated Zionism and fascism.

I was a student activist in the 1980s in the International Marxist Group-dominated Socialist Students Alliance. I was a sabbatical vice-president and member of the National Union of Students polytechnics committee, as well as a delegate to 13 NUS national conferences. I do not remember one such motion. On the contrary, I moved the first ever motion, at the Christmas 1977 NUS conference, calling for a secular, democratic state in Palestine. No-one referred to Israel as a fascist state. When various individuals, usually unattached to any group, sought to apply the no-platform tactic to Zionist groups, I, and the rest of the far left, opposed them. But that has not stopped the AWL and the RCP’s Spiked magazine from making such an accusation. ‘No platform’ was a policy designed to defend democratic rights against fascist groups. Zionists were not fascists.

But, according to Jack, because I state that I know of no-one on the left who considers Israel to be fascist, and, even worse, I refer to Nazi-style racism in Israel and the fact - because it is a fact - that Histadrut redefines class in a way not dissimilar to the Nazis, his charged is proved. It is not.

It was Hannah Arendt, a non-Zionist, who noted in Eichmann in Jerusalem that “there certainly was something breathtaking in the naivety with which the prosecution denounced the infamous Nuremberg laws of 1935, which had prohibited intermarriage and sexual intercourse between Jews and Germans. The better informed among the correspondents were well aware of the irony” (London 1963, p7). And what was this irony? In Israel too Jews and non-Jews cannot marry for exactly the same reasons - preservation of the purity of race.

Jack Conrad believes that my description of Histadrut’s redefinition of class as being not dissimilar to that of the Nazis is proof of what he alleges. It is nothing of the kind. Comparisons can be made between non-Nazis and the Nazis on specific issues (for example, eugenics, abortion) without implying that all such persons are fascist: eg, HG Wells.

Histadrut organised the Jewish working class. It consciously sought to exclude Arab workers. It sought not to combat the Jewish bourgeoisie over anything but the question of Arab labour. It wanted to build, not destroy - as David Ben-Gurion, its first chairman and prime minister of Israel, stated. It was Ben-Gurion who coined the slogan, ‘From class to nation’.

Zeev Sternhall is a left Zionist and expert on fascism. He is a child survivor of the Nazi holocaust. He also survived a bomb recently planted by settlers. In his The founding myths of Zionism, he demonstrates that the Labour Zionist parties and Histadrut were anti-socialist from the very beginning. Not even reformist. He describes what they stand for as “nationalist Zionism”, making it clear that he would have called it ‘national socialism’ but for the connotations this raises. Zionism consciously sought to remove class struggle by redefining racial struggle as one of class (the ‘backward’, ‘feudal’ Arabs).

Yes, there are common features between Zionism and Nazism (another one being the attitude of leaders of both to the ‘racial sciences’ - Arthur Ruppin, the father of land settlement, in 1933 visited Jena to see professor Hans Gunther, Himmler’s academic mentor, where they had an amicable discussion about racial types, etc). But that does not mean that Zionism, a settler-colonial ideology, is fascist, although there are clear similarities.

Jack Conrad makes much of the fact that I pick him up over the question of millions of Jews coming to Israel and intermarrying. Not so, he says. They married other Jews. But that is the whole point. They could not marry non-Jews. Although Jack could not know it, the term ‘intermarriage’ has a specific meaning within Jewish orthodoxy and Zionism. It refers to marrying non-Jews. For example, “Jewish leaders in the UK are warning that British Jewry may die out if more is not done to try to combat intermarriage” (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4364633.stm). Much of orthodoxy holds that intermarriage is as bad as the holocaust because it leads to the ‘disappearance’ of Jews as Jews. But you would have to be Jewish to appreciate this.

Jack Conrad’s reference to what I said about the Galilee is disingenuous. Jack stated that “the vast majority of Israeli Jews” live in the Galilee. I disputed this. In fact the majority of those who live there are still Arabs despite the continued efforts of the Israeli state to ethnically purify the area. Yes, they are a small majority, but Jack should admit his error, not pretend it is nit-picking. There are crucial political reasons why this is important. The Israeli state is indeed different from normal bourgeois democratic states. It is a state which does not claim to represent all of its citizens. It is a Jewish state. Many states may be racist, but they do not, as a rule, weave racism into the very fabric of their being and identity.

Jack asserts that an Israeli-Jewish nation has arisen. I disagree, but in any case it would be irrelevant. Of course, it would be in the majority, unlike in South Africa, because it consciously sought to exclude the Arabs from its borders. South Africa never did this, even at the time of its Bantustanisation policy.

And what of this ‘nation’? Yes, it speaks the same language, generally, and it lives in the same contiguous area. But a nation is something like a ‘chose in action’. It is intangible. States and nations usually correspond. Not so in Israel, where Arabs are excluded from the nation. Israel claims to represents the mythical Jewish nation, including myself. But it does not recognise itself as a separate Hebrew nation, which is the weakness in Moshé Machover’s argument.

But if Israeli Jews are a nation, then they are an oppressor nation. Their very definition is in opposition to the indigenous population.

Like the American and Australian colonists and, yes, the Nazis, they sought expulsion, occupation and exploitation. Of course, they oppose living with Palestinians, just as their apartheid cousins did, but there is nothing inherent in this and structured racism should not be part of socialist solutions. What I am saying is that, unless and until this political goal of being a separate racial majority is confronted and broken, there is no possibility of the majority of Israeli Jews accepting any solution with the Palestinians that does not involve oppression. Two states can only ever mean that the Zionist goal of separation and majority is accepted. Why else two states? It would be a concession that would enable Zionism to survive its own death agony.

To talk about ‘self-determination’ of such a nation makes as much sense as to talk of self-determination of the American or Afrikaner or Russian nations. As oppressor nations determining others, by definition they determine their existence. Nor do they suffer national oppression. To paraphrase RH Tawney, freedom for the Zionist pike means death to the Palestinian minnow. Self-determination means the right to be free from national oppression. Israeli Jews are free from that: it is their victims who are not.

But we are not talking about what a future settlement under socialism might look like. We are talking about a bourgeois national solution. Just as in South Africa or Angola. A democratic, secular state, which would indeed grant to Israeli Jews ‘national’ rights of language and culture but would not countenance ‘rights’ which reinforce the present racially based nature of the Israeli state. A unitary state solution is both a goal and a symbol as to a potential solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question and is in opposition to partition, be it in Israel or Ireland.

And just one more misconception to clear up. Marx and Engels did indeed support a unitary democratic, as opposed to a two-state, solution to the Irish question. They did not support any idea of partition, but the separation of Britain and Ireland. That to my mind is not a two-state solution unless one looks at the problem through British eyes.

But I also suggest that instead of these polemics, which tend to deteriorate into personal jibes and thrusts, let us debate this - two states or one state? - in a comradely manner at a time and manner of both our choosing.