Zionism and Palestine

We are living through a period of existential crisis. The sudden outbreak of war in Israel/Palestine is only the latest in a series of convulsive shocks. The word genocide is one that should be used only with caution; but Israel’s blockade of Gaza, cutting off water, food and electricity while relentlessly bombing its helpless population, is virtually proclaimed by its perpetrators themselves in terms of genocide.

Israel justifies its slaughter of men, women and children in Gaza on the grounds that Hamas murdered civilians and took innocent hostages. Israel has in the last five months alone murdered some 30,000 civilians, and has for years kept thousands of Palestinians hostages in its own jails. Gaza has become Israel’s killing field. It is this sickening hypocrisy that has generated a worldwide mass protest movement comparable with those during the Vietnam and Iraq wars. We must act now to translate that revulsion and outrage into direct action, above all to demand divestment, a boycott of Israeli products, and mass trade-union activity to block arms supplies.

Israel was from its inception a racist regime; it is explicitly defined as a Jewish state. Jews the world over have an automatic right to settle there; Arabs who had lived there for generations were expelled. Inevitably, this led inexorably in the end to its logical conclusion: genocide.

Before the holocaust, the Jews in Eastern Europe were a persecuted minority forcibly confined to their own ghettoes. They spoke their own language, Yiddish, and a rich political and cultural life flourished within their communities, with a distinct literature, music, theatre, magazines and newspapers. Their political orientation was to the socialist Bund.

Zionism had no mass base in the ghettoes. It was little more than an outlandish fringe sect – something like the Marcus Garvey “back to Africa” movement in the USA or the Rastafarians in the Caribbean. The Bundists’ riposte to the Zionists, just as towards the fascist Black Hundreds, was: We’re going nowhere! This is our home! Even the terrible pogroms which propelled a huge tidal wave of mass migration gave little sustenance to Zionist aspirations.

Zionism was a handy tool seized on by British imperialism. With the Balfour Declaration in 1917, made during the First World War when the Ottoman Empire had crumbled, it cultivated Zionism as a strategic weapon – just as it promoted Wahhabism to divide and rule within the Arab world, of which Hamas is an offshoot. A Jewish homeland in Palestine would serve as an outpost to protect its control of the oilfields against the Arab revolution and, at that time, of Egypt, the Suez Canal and the sea route to India. In the words of the first British military governor of Jerusalem, it would be “a loyal little Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”.

In all the territories administered by the British Empire, a calculated policy of “divide-and-rule” was set in motion. We still see the consequences of “British civilisation” in ethnic conflicts around the world today: in Northern Ireland, the Indian sub-continent, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and the Middle East.

The strategic aim of British and later US imperialism was to plant a stable surrogate regime within the explosive powder-keg of the region. But at the end of the Second World War they also had a more immediate motive. There were hundreds of thousands of desperate holocaust survivors, refugees from the concentration camps now languishing in displaced persons’ camps. The creation of Israel would keep them out of Britain and America.

It was the holocaust which gave substance to Zionism. What had previously been a peripheral reactionary sect began to offer what seemed a credible lifeline. Jewish survivors of the concentration camps, desperately seeking refuge somewhere they could begin to build a new life risked their lives sailing rickety boats across the Mediterranean, where some of them were sunk by British colonial warships – just like their counterparts today, but in the opposite direction.

Here is a quotation from someone who had been reading a book by the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl: “The book interested me very much… Somehow this book touched a chord in me and I took it all in…” Who was the author of these lines? Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust! He continued: “It fell in with our own desire for a political solution: the Zionists wanted a territory where the Jewish people could finally settle in peace. And that was pretty much what the Nazis wanted.

Zionism was an acknowledgement of despair, a capitulation to anti-semitism: a lasting triumph of Nazism. In that sense the genocide in Palestine today is an indirect aftershock of the failure of the German revolution of 1918-23.    

When early warnings came of the impending holocaust, the Home Secretary in the wartime coalition government – Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson’s grandfather – refused the right of refuge and asylum in Britain to all but a handful of Europe’s Jews fleeing the holocaust and deliberately blocked entry by Jews. British immigration policy throughout that period was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews – perhaps ten times as many as it let in. And the Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government Ernest Bevin ordered the sinking of ships carrying concentration camp survivors fleeing the misery of displaced persons’ internment camps to seek a homeland in Palestine. On their part, their aspiration was not to establish a Zionist state or to dispossess the Palestinians; they were simply desperate to find somewhere to live. So when Labour’s right wing claim to be friends of the Jews, let them be reminded of their murderous record of drowning them in the Mediterranean, just as migrants in the opposite direction are being drowned there today.

Zionism came to mean a racist apartheid regime; and now an agent of extermination. But it is a mistake to regard Zionism as a unique evil. The hands of British imperialism too are dripping with blood: witness the massacre in Amritsar in 1919; or the tortures inflicted in the Kenya death camps; or the internment and assassinations in Northern Ireland.

Communal rivalry could at one time have been avoided. In the 1920s there had been 500,000 Arabs and 150,000 Jews living in Palestine, many of whom worked side by side. The heroic revolutionary Leopold Trepper, who was later to organise within Nazi Germany the underground communist spy network Red Orchestra, had organised the Ichud/Itachak (Unity) movement, which brought Jewish and Arab workers under a single banner, organised joint strikes and challenged the Zionist Histadrut, which only admitted Jewish workers.

Now, like the apartheid regime in South Africa, Israel explicitly defines itself as a communal ethnic state.

The historic justification for Zionism was always that without a state of their own Jews would be condemned to constant persecution. Today we see the final proof of the opposite. Far from offering them protection, the Zionist state has placed Jews in even greater danger. In the last thirty years alone, at least 2,000 Israelis have been killed in attacks. Do the Jews of Israel feel safe today? The surge of support for Netanyahu’s war on Gaza, coming so soon after a wave of daily mass demonstrations against his regime up to October 7th, is a mark of how frightened they are of being overrun by the Arab masses.

And how about the security of Jews outside Israel? For Jews in the “diaspora”, an undercurrent of dormant anti-semitism was always lurking in the shadows. But today a new variant of anti-semitism has become rampant. The worldwide revulsion at the horrors in Gaza has breathed new life into it. And for Jews in the “diaspora”, while an undercurrent of anti-semitism was always lurking in the shadows before, it was until recently largely dormant. Now it’s epidemic and rampant, gaining a new impetus first from the fake anti-Corbyn smear campaign, which outrageously accused socialists of anti-semitism (a lie concocted by the British secret state every bit as monstrous as the Zinoviev letter), which breathed new life into age-old racist delusions – and now on a massive scale by the Gaza war.

Look at these examples randomly selected from recent facebook comments by people presumably regarding themselves as lefts… “How can I ever feel comfortable now talking with a Jew?”, “Now I understand why ordinary Germans accepted the holocaust”, and even “How can anyone not be antisemitic when they are committing genocide?” Would these people not have protested vigorously against any expressions of Islamophobia after 9/11?

Here’s another comment: “The attack on Gaza is the worst atrocity in human history” – an expression of blissful ignorance of centuries of war, genocide, slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and the mass extermination of native populations by previous settler regimes – for instance in the USA, South America, Australia, etc..

The bloodbath in Gaza is not unprecedented. Israel is acting just the same as many other settler regimes. Compare America, both North and South; or Australia and New Zealand; or Kenya, South-West Africa, the Congo, South Africa, etc. Terrible and genocidal crimes of extermination were committed against the indigenous populations of all these countries, and similar crimes are being inflicted today against the Palestinians. The difference is that the racial oppression in Israel has been wilfully abetted by world imperialism.

But history can’t be unwritten. We don’t call for the expulsion of the descendants of these migrant settlers. Generations have grown up in Israel in the last 75 years, and they have no other home. Where are they to go? Back to the concentration camps? Back to the ghettos? What we condemn is Israel’s identity as a racially designated state in which non-Jews face discrimination and now mass slaughter. 

World imperialism wants a so-called “two-state” solution: in effect, the creation of a subjugated Palestinian Bantustan with just the formal trappings of statehood. Others, with the best intentions, have called for a single state with equal rights for both communities – a solution which could in any case only be achieved by the overthrow of the existing Israeli state. Socialist internationalists must stand neither for two neighbouring hostile mini-states, nor for one single unviable common state within what is still just an artificially designated strip of land.

Not one of the states in the region is sustainable. Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire, British and French imperialists ruthlessly carved up the region by drawing arbitrary lines on the map – the Sykes/Picot plan. Communal strife has raged throughout the region ever since: with years of civil war in Lebanon, and Syria, and Yemen; full-scale massacres and endless sectarian atrocities in Jordan, Iraq, Iran… All these states are artificial constructs imposed by imperialism.

So what is the solution? A socialist federation in which all the communities could live in peace: the creation of a common homeland in a harmonious socialist federation of the Middle East. Yes, that may seem utopian – but how practical has any alternative solution turned out? As with all the nightmares convulsing civilisation today, the unity of all working people on a socialist foundation provides the only possible way out of catastrophe.

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