Defend the Palestinians!
Not Jew Against Arab, But Class Against Class!
One of the important achievements of the French Revolution was Jewish emancipation—a process initiated in 1791 when the National Assembly, after considerable debate, decreed that henceforth Jews would have complete legal equality with other citizens. The victorious campaigns of France’s armies during the next decade abolished the special, inferior, status of Jews throughout most of Europe. The champions of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” who rejected the notion that the “natural rights of man” were conditional on race or creed, sought to create a state in which all citizens were equal before the law.
The creators of the state of Israel had entirely different aspirations. They dreamed of an ethnically exclusive Jewish state. In Israel today all citizens do not have equal rights—Jews have special privileges and receive preferential treatment in education, employment, housing, land ownership and most other areas of life. Palestinians who were not expelled from their ancestral home in 1947-48, and reside within Israel today, are second-class citizens.
Edward Herman of the University of Pennsylvania has observed that any state that treated its Jewish minority as Israel treats its Arab population would be universally reviled. If, for example, France refused to permit Jewish citizens to rent accommodations, buy land or open a business in 90 percent of the country; if it refused to allow Jews into the military (making them ineligible for many government subsidies); and if French police routinely inflicted torture exclusively on Jewish detainees, France would be (quite rightly) denounced for abominable anti-Semitism. Yet this is how Israel treats its Palestinian citizens.
For some time the Zionist ruling class has been pursuing a policy of incremental “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians from most of the Occupied Territories. At the annual Herzliya conference attended by Zionist politicians, academics and security officials, the “demographic threat” posed by the higher birth rate of Israel’s Arab minority is now openly discussed. A variety of racist “solutions” have been proposed—from reducing Palestinian birth rates, to deportations and mass population transfers.
Twenty years ago only Meir Kahane’s fascistic Kach party talked of the “transfer” (a euphemism for forcible expulsion) of Israel’s Palestinian minority. But times have changed. Where Israeli apologists used to deny that the 750,000 Palestinian civilians who left Israel in 1947-48 were driven out by terror, today suggestions that it may be necessary to “finish the job” are being floated by both right- and “left-” wing Zionists. Benny Morris, one of the country’s “new historians,” whose work exposed the crimes of Israel’s founding fathers against the Palestinians, has now decided that this was a case in which “the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts.” This pathological mindset is common to all “ethnic cleansers.”
The following is a slightly edited version of a talk given in Toronto by Tom Riley on 4 October 2003.
A hundred years ago, when the decrepit Ottoman (Turkish) Empire still controlled much of the Middle East, there was no cycle of bloodletting between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. A small Jewish community co-existed peaceably in a predominantly Muslim society, much as it had for at least 1,500 years. There were thriving Jewish communities in practically every Arab city in the region. Things are very different today, and I want to talk about why that is, and how a just and equitable “peace” for all the peoples of the Middle East can be achieved.
The Middle East plays a pivotally important role in world politics today for one reason—oil. In 1945, according to Noam Chomsky, a U.S. State Department document described the oil fields of the region as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” The history of the Persian Gulf over the past century has been decisively shaped by the struggle of various imperialist powers for control of that prize. This seems unlikely to change, as one informed commentator recently observed:
“As vital as the Persian Gulf is now, its strategic importance is likely to grow exponentially in the next 20 years. Nearly one out of every three barrels of oil reserves in the world lie under just two countries: Saudi Arabia (with 259 billion barrels of proven reserves) and Iraq (112 billion). Those figures may understate Iraq’s largely unexplored reserves, which according to U.S. government estimates may hold as many as 432 billion barrels.
“With supplies in many other regions, especially the United States and the North Sea, nearly exhausted, oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq is becoming ever more critical—a fact duly noted in the administration’s National Energy Policy, released in 2001 by a White House task force. By 2020, the Gulf will supply between 54 percent and 67 percent of the world’s crude, the document said, making the region ‘vital to U.S. interests.’”
—Robert Dreyfuss, “The Thirty-Year Itch,”
Mother Jones, March/April 2003
World War I, the first great inter-imperialist conflict, pitted Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey against Britain, France and Russia. The Middle East was a minor arena in that struggle for world domination, but the British made some effort to ignite an Arab revolt against Turkish rule. (This was the subject of the 1962 Academy Award-winning “Lawrence of Arabia” that starred Peter O’Toole.) The British promised the Arabs self-government after the war if the Turks were defeated.
Suddenly in February 1917, in the midst of the war, the Russian Czar was overthrown and a shifting succession of republicans, liberals and “moderate socialists” took turns at the helm. Britain’s rulers were concerned that Russia might unilaterally pull out of the war, thereby freeing the German high command to move all its troops to the Western Front. The British Foreign Office was very aware of the prominent role that Jews played in every wing of the Russian socialist movement, and in an attempt to strengthen the pro-war “socialist” government of Alexander Kerensky against the irresponsible Bolsheviks, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour pledged to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But the “Balfour Declaration” wasn’t enough to save Kerensky who was overthrown five days after it was issued. One of the first actions of the new revolutionary government was to pull Russia out of the war. The Allies won anyway, enabling Britain to grab most of the Ottoman holdings in the Middle East, with the exception of Syria and Lebanon, which went to France.
The British welcomed Jewish European immigration to Palestine because they considered the Zionist settlers potential allies in the defense of the Suez Canal and other imperial holdings in the region. Between 1918 and 1932 Palestine’s Jewish population almost tripled from 65,000 to 180,000. This increased even more after the Nazis’ 1933 seizure of power in Germany. All the great “democracies,” including Britain, Canada and the U.S., had blatantly anti-Semitic immigration policies and accepted only tiny numbers of Jewish refugees. Palestine was one of the few places that German Jews could go, and so by 1940, the Jewish population had grown to 450,000.
This massive influx alarmed the indigenous Arab population, and was a major factor in touching off the 1936-39 Arab revolt against British rule. The rebellion was eventually put down by the British Army with the aid of Zionist auxiliaries. It had nonetheless alarmed the policy makers in London. War with Germany was clearly imminent, so the British government, figuring that the Jews could never support Hitler, decided to mend fences with the Arabs. A May 1939 White Paper renounced any intention of partitioning Palestine between Arabs and Jews and promised instead to create an independent Palestinian state within a decade, to restrict further Jewish immigration and to ensure that the Jewish population of the territory would not exceed a third of the total. In 1938 Tony Cliff, who later founded the “third-campist” International Socialist Tendency, commented on this development in the American Trotskyist theoretical journal:
“A little illustration will plainly show how the struggle against Jewish immigration distorts the anti-imperialist struggle: a short time ago rumors spread in Palestine that the government was on the verge of stopping Jewish immigration; where upon the Arabs organized joyous demonstrations in which they cried: ‘Long Live Chamberlain!’ ‘Long Live England!’ ‘The government is with us!’”
—“Class Politics in Palestine,” New International, June 1938
After the war there was another major influx of Jews into Palestine—the “displaced persons” who had managed to survive Hitler’s death camps. Very few of them were Zionists, and most would have preferred to go to America or Britain, but once again the Western democracies refused to accept them. The title of Irving Abella’s book, None is Too Many, sums up the Canadian government’s attitude to Jewish immigration at the time. The New York Times of 30 August 1948 noted:
“The almost universal opinion of refugee experts who have observed procedures in Germany is that [U.S.] consular officials make it much more difficult for displaced persons than for Germans emigrating to the United States.”
It was a good deal easier for former Nazis (who were considered politically reliable anti-communists) to enter the United States and Canada than for their victims.
British attempts to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine led to a conflict with the Zionist settlers who carried out a campaign of terror against the colonial administration. The British ruling class, which was virtually bankrupt by the end of the war, was in the process of divesting itself of most of its colonial holdings and announced plans to vacate Palestine in May 1948. The fledgling United Nations proposed a partition that gave the Jewish minority the majority of the territory. This crime was backed by the U.S. and also endorsed by Joseph Stalin, who hoped to reap some short-term diplomatic advantage. In fact, the Soviet Union was the first state to officially recognize Israel.
The Trotskyists, to their credit, opposed the partition and denounced the Zionist plans for an exclusively Jewish state as reactionary. While few in numbers, the Palestinian Trotskyists were an integrated organization—about one quarter Arab and the rest Jewish. The Trotskyists took a position of revolutionary defeatism on both sides in the 1948 War, during which the Zionists and the Arab rulers cooperated in carving up the land the UN had allocated to the Palestinians. The Zionist “war” mostly consisted of bloody ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the most infamous example being the massacre of 250 civilians in the village of Deir Yassin by Menachem Begin’s Irgun in April 1948. In 1980, when he was Israeli prime minister, Begin celebrated this crime by leveling what remained of the ruins of the village, and building a new Jewish settlement on the site with streets named after the Irgun units that carried out the massacre. Roughly half the Palestinians (some 700,000 people) were driven out of their ancestral homeland by Zionist terror in 1948.
One tragic aspect of the destruction of Palestine in 1948 was that many of the Zionist pogromists who carried out the “ethnic cleansing” were the brutalized survivors of the horrors of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry—certainly one of the most horrendous crimes in history. The Jewish people in the diaspora were among the most cosmopolitan, educated and politically sophisticated elements in every society in which they lived. Jewish militants played a disproportionately important role in the socialist movement in the Arab world, just as in North America and Europe. Henri Curiel, a central leader of the Egyptian Communist Party in the 1940s, for example, was Jewish. But today the majority of world Jewry has been poisoned by Zionism—the ideology of the oppressors of the Palestinians.
The Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 were, like that of 1948, essentially reactionary conflicts between Arab and Zionist bourgeoisies in which revolutionaries were for the defeat of both sides. In 1967 Israel seized the West Bank (which Jordan had carved out of Palestine in 1948), took the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. Most of the reformist and centrist left sided with the supposedly “anti-imperialist” Arab regimes. Fake-Trotskyists like Ernest Mandel and Gerry Healy joined New Leftists and Stalinists in hailing a supposed “Arab Revolution” which cast the various sheiks, colonels and bonapartist oppressors of the Arab peoples, as the agents of an “objectively” revolutionary dynamic. Today, with most of the Arab regimes signed up as enforcers of IMF “structural adjustment” programs, it is impossible to sustain such illusions.
The Middle East is a region with vast riches, which under the rule of imperialism, are used to enrich foreign capitalists (with a minor share diverted to their local agents in the ruling elites). Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which used to describe itself as a “revolutionary” movement engaged in struggle against “imperialism,” is widely recognized as nothing but a bunch of petty-bourgeois nationalists who aspire to play the role of exploiters of their own people.
The PLO’s “armed struggle” of the 1960s and 70s—airline hijackings and occasional small-scale guerrilla raids in Israel—never posed any threat to the Zionist state. It was intended by the PLO leadership to draw international attention to the plight of the Palestinians and put pressure on the Arab rulers for more support. The only interest the Arab bourgeoisie ever had in the Palestinians’ predicament was as a means of diverting domestic anger onto a foreign enemy. The Arab regimes, like the Zionist one, are the enemies, not the allies, of both the Palestinians and their own peoples.
In 1970 King Hussein of Jordan killed over 10,000 Palestinians in the infamous “Black September” massacre, and pushed the PLO into Lebanon. In 1982 Israel launched a massive assault on Lebanon (Operation “Peace in Galilee”) with the intention of destroying the PLO once and for all. At least 17,000 civilians perished in the brutal Zionist assault and the subsequent siege of East Beirut where the PLO was trapped.
Yasir Arafat, the PLO leader, called for the dispatch of imperialist UN troops to protect the Palestinians. Virtually every reformist and centrist left tendency treated this as the only “realistic” option, but when the U.S.-led UN “peacekeepers” arrived, they disarmed the PLO fighters and shipped them out to Tunisia and left Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s “Defense” Minister and today prime minister, free to organize the massacre of 2,000 defenseless Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps.
U.S. troops remaining in Lebanon after the departure of the PLO became involved in the squalid Lebanese civil war, siding with the Israeli-backed Christian Phalange government. In October 1983 Islamic Jihad truck bombers blew up the U.S. Marines’ compound (and simultaneously hit the French paratroopers’ encampment). President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that the U.S. would not cut and run, but, a couple of months later, they did just that. Revolutionaries defended the blows that drove out the imperialists—without giving any political support to the Islamic fanatics who struck them—just as today we welcome every blow struck at the Zionist military in the West Bank and Gaza, or at imperialist “coalition” troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, by indigenous forces.
There was a great deal of opposition within Israel to the invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Like American soldiers in Vietnam, many Israeli conscripts were deeply disturbed by the Zionist war crimes against civilians. The ratio of “psychiatric” to physical casualties in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) during the campaign in Lebanon was reported to be double the norm.
Oslo Peace Accord: Betrayal of Palestinian Rights
Exiled in Tunis, the PLO gradually lost influence in the Occupied Territories. It played no role in initiating the first intifada in 1987. The PLO had been weakened by the growth of radical Islamist currents and the dramatic reduction in funding from its Arab state sponsors. Its position was further undermined by the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which had provided important political support. By the late 1980s Arafat was anxious to make a deal on virtually any basis. The result was the August 1993 Oslo agreement.
The core of the deal was that in exchange for giving up all claims to the 78 percent of Palestine that lay inside Israel’s 1967 borders, the PLO would be permitted to police a patchwork of Palestinian ghettos in the West Bank and Gaza. The poison pill was sweetened with vague talk about an eventual Palestinian mini-state in parts of the Occupied Territories, but in reality the PLO had signed on as auxiliaries for the Zionist occupation authorities. In September 1993 we said: “The so-called ‘Peace Plan’ signed a few weeks ago is a travesty of justice and represents a new betrayal of Palestinian national rights” (1917 No. 13). The latest step in the Zionist drive for lebensraum is the construction of an enormous fortified concrete wall to contain the West Bank Palestinians in a series of tiny, isolated concentration camps.
In her recent book, Israel Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, Tanya Reinhart quotes Sharon as describing the current campaign against the Palestinians as “the second half of 1948,” i.e., an attempt to finish eliminating the indigenous Arab population from the historic territory of Palestine. The whole “peace process” is a gigantic swindle in which the Palestinians were offered “land for peace,” but got nothing more than empty promises. Although Zionist settler outposts were supposed to have been frozen under the Oslo agreement, the number of settlers has doubled since the deal was signed in September 1993.
The murderous Zionist military has already killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and seriously injured thousands more. The destruction wrought on the Palestinians by the Israeli war machine is generally portrayed by the corporate media in North America as a defensive, if regrettable, necessity in response to Palestinian terrorism. This lie is exposed by the fact that the Israeli occupation authorities have been systematically destroying the tools of civil administration—including educational and medical records—while also bulldozing Palestinian homes, hospitals and even water and sewage systems throughout the West Bank. The Sharon government’s strategy is simple—to make life so unbearable that large numbers of Palestinians, particularly youth, will be forced to leave the Occupied Territories. The Israeli state’s “solution” to the Palestinian “problem” is called “ethnic cleansing” when implemented elsewhere.
The blatant corruption of Arafat and the top echelon of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has fueled the growth of theocratic, misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic formations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad among Palestinians, who had previously been among the most secular, best educated and most cosmopolitan peoples in the Arab world. Arafat is a prisoner in the rubble of his compound in Ramallah. Sharon recently announced his intention to kill him, but Washington is not sure that is wise, particularly with the situation in the Middle East deteriorating, so that plan is on hold, at least for now.
Israeli state policy on the West Bank has long been to make normal life impossible. In 1983 the military authorities decreed that Palestinians were not permitted to plant trees or even vegetables without a written permit. Anyone caught illegally planting an eggplant or tomato could be sentenced to up to a year in jail. Chomsky sums up life in the West Bank as follows:
“While a handful of Israeli settlers run luxury hotels with swimming pools for guests and profit from water-intensive agriculture, Palestinians lack water to drink—or, increasingly, even food to eat, as the economy collapses, apart from wealthy Palestinians, who are doing fine, on the standard Third World model.”
—The Fateful Triangle
In the tiny Gaza strip things are even worse. A third of the territory is occupied by a mere 6,000 Jewish settlers (and the IDF garrison which protects them) while a million Palestinians are penned up in the other two-thirds.
One bright spot in a generally bleak situation has been the intervention of young people from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) risking their lives in attempts to defend individual Palestinians. Rachel Corrie, an American student from Washington State, was killed earlier this year  when she was deliberately run over by an Israeli bulldozer driver intent on destroying a Palestinian home. Another ISM member, Tom Hurndall, a British youth from Manchester who was shot in the head by an IDF sniper, is now brain dead. We salute the courage of these youth and their determination to help expose the brutality of the Zionist ethnic cleansers. But lying down in front of tanks cannot decisively change the balance of forces in the Middle East.
We side militarily with the oppressed against the Israel Army and the racist Zionist settlers, while recognizing that the Palestinians cannot win a military confrontation with the Israel Defense Force. This has led Hamas to look for softer targets—schools, shopping malls and dance halls. It is easy to understand the psychology of the young Palestinian suicide bombers. Their lives destroyed; their homes bulldozed; their futures stolen; their parents and siblings beaten, tortured or killed, they want revenge and a quick exit from the living hell that the Zionists have created. Yet Marxists cannot condone indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians—unlike those on the fascistic settlers and IDF members.
Attacks on Zionist troops (or their settler auxiliaries) are blows against the occupation. But blowing up people riding on a bus or going to a movie is not only a criminal act from the point of view of the workers’ movement, it is also profoundly stupid, as it only welds Israeli working people more closely to their rulers. We saw how this works with the upsurge of mindless xenophobia in the U.S. after “9/11.” If ordinary Israelis believe that their physical survival is at stake, they will be far more supportive of brutal repression against the Palestinians. The only road to the national liberation of the Palestinians is through the destruction of the Zionist state, but that cannot be achieved through a nationalist strategy.
Divisions Within the Zionist Fortress
It is easy enough to demagogically declare that the Israeli Jewish nation has no right to exist, but those who might attempt to implement such a program quickly come up against some hard material facts. The Zionist rulers are armed to the teeth, largely as a result of U.S. subsidies. The concern about “weapons of mass destruction” does not apply to the Zionists, who possess several hundred nuclear warheads that give them the ability to easily obliterate every Arab city, whenever they choose to. The prospect of “driving the Jews into the sea,” as well as being reactionary, is delusional. The Zionist fortress must be destroyed from within. And this means winning over at least a section of the Jewish working class to a perspective of joint class struggle with the Palestinians and other Arab workers of the region. This is a very difficult, but not impossible, project as indicated by the fact that last year there were several hundred IDF reservists who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories. Last week they were joined by 27 reserve air force pilots.
There has been plenty of evidence during the past year that the objective interests of the Israeli working class are counterposed to those of their masters. In an attempt to reduce overheads and revive Israel’s sagging economy, which has been hit hard by the simultaneous collapse of the technology stock bubble and tourism, the Sharon government has been cutting jobs, social benefits and wages for Jewish workers. In March 2003, half a million Israeli government workers mobilized for strike action to beat back, at least temporarily, a particularly aggressive austerity package being pushed by finance minister (and former prime minister) Benjamin Netanyahu. This confrontation graphically demonstrated that Zionist chauvinism and territorial expansionism have not obliterated the profound social contradictions between Israel’s bosses and the Jewish working class.
Another fault-line in Israeli society is between Jews of European origin and those from Arab countries. The darker-skinned Sephardic Jews, who constitute the popular base for the ruling rightist Likud Party, tend to be less educated, and are segregated into the lowest-paid jobs where they are most directly threatened by cheaper Palestinian labor. They have real grievances, but their anger has largely been channeled into hatred of Arabs, much as poor whites in the U.S. have often provided a mass base for the Ku Klux Klan.
Shas, the National Religious Party and the other Jewish fundamentalist formations, which have often held the balance of power in the Israeli parliament, are practically as misogynist as their Islamist equivalents. They flatly reject equality for homosexuals and are opposed to co-education and to a woman’s right to abortion. They consider that Jewish women have a duty to produce as many babies as possible to populate “Eretz Israel,” which, according to their biblical maps, includes everything from the Nile to the Euphrates—i.e., a big chunk of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and all of Kuwait, Jordan and Syria.
The settlers in the Occupied Territories, most of whom are religious fanatics, get an average subsidy of $10,000 a year. This is the source of considerable resentment among ordinary Israeli taxpayers who are not fundamentalists. The quarter of the Israeli Jewish population which is strictly secular tends to resent attempts by the fundamentalist minority to impose their religious beliefs.
Not Jew Against Arab, but Class Against Class!
The root of the problem is that both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews claim the same small territory—and under capitalism one people can only exercise real self-determination at the expense of the other. Various liberal Zionists and reformist leftists have proposed that if Israel would just pull out of Gaza and the West Bank (which neither the Labour nor Likud wings of the Zionist ruling class has ever had any intention of doing) then the Palestinians could have “self-determination” in their own bifurcated mini-state. There are 6 million Palestinians, and 4.5 million Jewish Israelis. Giving the Jewish minority four-fifths of the territory, and squeezing the Arab majority into two impoverished Bantustans that constitute the other fifth would not solve anything in the long run. Israelis have no “right” to retain all the territory stolen from the Palestinians, but Marxists recognize that a Jewish-Israeli nation exists with an innate right to national existence.
Many leftists, including the left social-democratic International Socialists (IS), think that because workers’ revolution is a long way off, we have to take a more practical approach and look for an equitable resolution under capitalism. The 14 August 2002 issue of Socialist Worker [Canada] put it like this:
“The goal of a real peace plan must be a single, democratic, secular state, where all religions and cultures can be freely expressed and where politics is based on fair and open elections.”
Sounds pretty nice. A “democratic, secular [capitalist] state” where everything is fair and square. Who needs socialism? Social democrats, whether in the New Democratic Party or the IS, imagine that the irrationality of the capitalist world order can be overcome if sufficient pressure is brought to bear on the vicious imperialists to force them to play fair and be friends. Why have inter-imperialist rivalry? Why have class struggle? Wouldn’t it all be easier if the lions and lambs just lay down together? But capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. The history of the past 500 years has been one of constant struggle for the division and re-division of the world by various capitalist bandits. Marx and Engels laid out the essentials pretty clearly in the Communist Manifesto in 1848.
The precondition for Palestinians and Israelis equitably sharing the territory they both claim, like the precondition for Kurdish self-determination, women’s liberation, full employment, universal healthcare and all other good things, is the uprooting of imperialist control in the region and the creation of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. Unlike the various competing bourgeoisies, the proletariat of every country has an objective interest in promoting egalitarianism and resolving national antagonisms. But the working class can only come to power if it is led by a Leninist-Trotskyist party, based on the program of permanent revolution, and committed to implacable struggle against the Islamic reactionaries, monarchists and bonapartists of the Arab world as well as Israel’s racist Zionist rulers.
It will not be easy to build such an organization, but it is not impossible. Most importantly, there is no other road. Only a party that inscribes on its banner “Not Jew Against Arab, But Class Against Class!” can solve the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East in a historically progressive manner.
from 1917 no. 26, 2004