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Review: Pragmatism and Palestine

Arabs, Jews, and Socialism – Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, London, 2019.

Two Nations, Two States: Socialists and Israel/Palestine, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, London, 2016.

By D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

6 July 2019

This writer’s consideration of the recent elections in Ireland was interrupted when he received copies of the two hyper pamphlets named above. Though he does not claim to be a Middle East expert, he read them and finds the need to comment thereon.

As is usual with publications of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) the reading is quantitatively large: 120 pages in all to consider the question whether the area known as Palestine should be constituted as two (effectively confessional) states or as one secular democracy. The AWL advocates the first: the rest of the left (mainly, here, the Socialist Workers’ Party), the second. The total size of these works would be justified however, if they addressed some of the questions raised by the issue discussed. Even better would have been a discussion of the details of the present situation, rather than, as it is, one weighted overwhelmingly on polemics argued in the last century.

The basic omission is the failure of either side to place the question in its overall material or political context. On its own showing, the AWL would seem to be the worse offender.  This is the more disappointing in that its basic position has strengths unavailable to its rivals. It has the support of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It can claim credibly the support of more Jews that its counter-proposal. When presented, it conformed more than the single Palestinian plan to the realities of the political situation in the area.

Nonetheless, the AWL chooses to give only a sketchy analysis to justify its position, and covers it with the wild accusation that whoever disagrees with it is ‘anti-semitic’, despite the fact that all parties to the debate are as much against anti-Jewish discrimination as they are against the oppression of Arabs. The League’s excuse is that most Jews support the state of Israel. This seems true, at least for European Jews; recent polls puts their backing of the country at 75%. Yet two questions have to be asked of this. Firstly, how far does this support go; does it include the post-1967 Israeli occupation of Arab majority territories? Secondly, if this majority is misguided, how is it anti-semitic to say so?

In fact, the AWL line is tainted by an adaptation to the methods and analysis of Zionism, the creed that inspires Israel, even where such techniques conflict with those of the Marxism the Alliance professes. Marxism is, by definition, and despite the practices of many of its self-proclaimed practitioners, centred on an international perspective. It sees humanity’s salvation as to be brought about by the working people, regardless of ethnicity. Zionism is a crypto-nationalist ideology offering salvation to one ethnic group regardless of class. Despite its relative modernity, it is based on a religio-mystical view of the world (known to Gentiles as the Old Testament), unlike Marxism’s scientific-inductive approach. Though the AWL would not accept formally the Zionist approach, it is able to empathise with it by abandoning Marxist inclusivity in favour of isolated analyses of separate issues, Pragmatism. (The Alliance’ chief theoretician, Sean Matgamna justifies this by claiming to present ‘things as they really are’, but things cannot be understood out of context.)

This can be seen in the League’s descriptive analysis of the history of Zionism. Its cause is simply given as being that of ‘the alarming growth of anti-semitism in the late 19thcentury’ (‘Two Nations, Two States,’ P. 9). This is precisely Zionism’s ethnic view of matters, as of a world divided unchangeably between the Jews and their enemies. In fact the ruling classes and castes of any hierarchical society need scapegoats to take the blame when they cock-up matters. In the early Christian centuries this valuable role was performed by the Christians, but the Romans became Christians and began to see the merits of anti-semitism, not least because the Jews could be blamed for the Romans’ own action, in killing their newly adopted God. After more than a millennium, matters began to change.  Renaissance and reformation stimulated conditions in which the accusation of deicide became discredited at least in western Europe. The Jews began to be regarded as just another minority religious group. Cromwell welcomed them into Britain on more satisfactory terms than the Catholics.

The age of reason remained restrictive. Such enlightenment figures as Voltaire remained unsympathetic. Yet the nineteenth century republic as the arena for their own culture’, - ibid, P.28.It might be argued that these passages showed Trotsky to be an unconscious  Zionist himself, despite his statement that ‘Zionism is incapable of solving the Jewish question.’ The difference lay in the class context. For Trotsky, the Jewish autonomous state would have to be forged in the fire of the working peoples’ revolution. For the Zionists, Israel would be built by normal capitalist methods, buying out the local landlords, evicting their tenants, ( and, thereby, magnifying the toxicity of the national divisions in the area).This difference has led class conscious observers to conclude that Zionism is merely a form of fascism, a pseudo-socialism enabling the bosses to intensify totally their control over their employees. It is not that; it is simply a form of nationalism, and initially a form of the nationalism of the oppressed. As such, it was initially miles away from fascism,though, as will be shown later, the contradiction of the position of its state seems to be leading it to a fascist position.

On the other hand, its negative aspects have always been magnified by the fact that it is necessarily an ideology of settlers.  This is disputed by the AWL, which remarks that most settler states tend to enslave the populations of the lands they occupy, whereas, at least initially, the Israelis have preferred to work their own economy without employing Palestinian Arabs. Of course, whether ethnic cleansing is a lesser evil to enslavement is an open question. What is more significant is the fact that the Israelis’ self-sufficiency (albeit a self-sufficiency supported by enormous American subventions) is the same as one particular settler development, that of the White Americans in the wild west. It might be added that this does give squatters’ rights to those living within Israel’s 1948 borders. Nonetheless, it also gives Israelis an extra right wing ideological bias that Socialists have to recognize and challenge.

The biggest practical weakness of the AWL line is its approach to immigration to Palestine. There are two contradictory ‘laws of return’, that of the Arabs and that of the Zionists. The Arab law asserts the right for all who have been displaced by the settlers, applying the right to the actual victims and their heirs. The Jewish law gives the right to all Jews, even converted gentiles who have had no connection present or ancestral with the ‘Holy Land’. Both laws would be regarded as valid; as Matgamna states ‘Socialists are in favour of free immigration, aren’t we?’ (Nonetheless, the Arab law is clearly more reasonable.)  Yet, despite the statement just quoted, Matgamna does not apply the principle evenly. He uses it to justify the Zionist law but rubbishes that of the Arabs.

This bias is part of his overall pragmatism. Mass Jewish support for Zionism is not only the result of decades of direct persecution, reaching their nadir in the Shoa. It was also the result of less direct persecution, most notably by the democratic capitalist states before (and during) the second World War, persecution shown in the USA’s refusal to admit Jewish immigrants from Nazi Germany and in the British Foreign Office’ ‘Wailing Jews’ memorandum dismissing the call to bomb the railway lines to the death camps. Today, it is shown in the United States’ insistence that Jewish emigrants from Russia and Ethiopia be given only the hobson’s choice of settlement in Israel, rather than America, for many their preferred destination. Similarly, on the other side, the Arab dictators have refused to give citizenship to the Palestinian refugees, keeping them as a deprived caste whose only hopes are with their masters destroying Israel.

One further weakness in these works should be noticed. Only Martin Thomas has remarked how recent events in Israel have strengthened the negative aspects of Zionism. When most of the articles in these collections were written, it was comparatively easy to hope that a peaceful compromise between Israelis and Palestine Arabs was a probability. Israel had surrendered Negev and was preparing to surrender Gaza, a strong peace movement had developed, the PLO accepted a two states settlement. Since then matters have gone backwards. As the AWL noted even at the original time of writing, the comparatively rational, if corrupt Al Fatah was being supplanted by the Islamic fundamentalism of Hamas in the hearts and minds of the Palestinians and this has increased. On the other side, as the League has noted only briefly, the negative potential of Zionism has come increasingly to the fore. This is not just due to the rise of Hamas. It was not Hamas that has caused the steady abandonment of Jewish self-sufficiency in Israel in favour of a sweatshop economy employing Palestinians. What is more, it is becoming clear that the whole logic of Zionism is more rather than less expansionist. It offers safety for all Jews, but it can do this only if they settle in Israel.

The Jewish nuclear bomb is of far less effect as a deterrent to pogroms. Accordingly, the west bank has to be settled, thus blocking the chances of a two state solution.  Further, since only between a third and a quarter of world Jewry lives in Israel, it is an increasing probability that, to achieve the Zionist aims, it will have to expand. Perhaps by taking over Jordan and advancing to the Euphrates, it will avenge at last the Babylonian captivity.

Socialists must contest this appalling vista. To do so, they must make democratic political demands as well as economic ones (although, in the past period, such economic terms have been all too ignored). There can be no adaptation to religious fundamentalism, whether Muslim or Jewish. In addition, and no less than in Europe, the basic right of freedom of movement must be asserted, to allow Jews and Arabs to go or not to go to Palestine. The Palestinian refugees in Arab countries should be given full citizenship rights. Immediately, and most practically, Irish socialists must give full support to Senator Frances Black’s Occupied Territories Bill to black imports from territories occupied by foreign settlers in Israel and elsewhere. Socialists outside Ireland should agitate for such a law to be enacted in their countries.

Without such measures the future is bleak for the working people of Palestine, Arab and Jewish alike.

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