[This article, dated January 1978, was included (unsigned) in a Matzpen pamphlet, Our Position on the National Question (1978). The pamphlet was issue number 4 in a series “Dappim Adumim” (Red Pages)]


In order to reach a correct, clear, and consistent formulation of our position on the national question, we must first state correctly the question itself. We must distinguish between phenomena of national oppression and racist oppression. This distinction is particularly important when dealing with the Israel-Arab conflict, in which (as in other conflicts having a colonial aspect) phenomena of both kinds intersect each other, so that reality displays a complex combination of national oppression and racist discrimination. Theoretical analysis must unravel this tangled skein, and separate its various elements from one another. This is a precondition for arriving at a correct political position. Failing to distinguish between the two kinds of phenomena is dangerous because it may lead to taking a one-sided position: confronting only the aspect of national oppression while ignoring the problem of racist discrimination, or vice versa. However, elimination of national oppression does not automatically remove racist discrimination or the other way around.

In the article “Zionism, National Oppression, and Racism” we explained in some detail the difference between national oppression and racist discrimination, and showed that they belong to two different levels of social reality.

Against Racism; for Total Individual Equality, Irrespective of Origin

In essence, racism violates personal human rights. These include the right to acquire citizenship and take part in political life; the right to immigrate to and emigrate from a country; the right to choose one’s place of residence, occupation, and work-place; the right to education; and — in extreme cases — the right to life. If rights of this kind are granted to some persons and denied to others on grounds of their different origins — this constitutes racist discrimination. If persons of different origins are prevented (by law or by other constraints) from living together, working and enjoying recreation together, having sexual relations and marrying — this constitutes racist segregation, apartheid.

We socialists are implacably opposed to these phenomena and fight unrelentingly against them. We struggle uncompromisingly for abolition of all forms of apartheid and racist discrimination, and for total equality of rights for all human beings, irrespective of their racial, ethnic, or national origins.

All this is clear and obvious. But what seems not to be sufficiently clear is that the above demands for equal rights are applicable in the struggle against racism but do not address problems of national oppression. In this regard there is some confusion (unintentional or willful) among those who are incapable or unwilling to confront the national problem; they repeat over and over again formulas such as “equal rights”, “one person, one vote”, “living together”, and pretend that by doing so they are addressing the problem of national oppression. But this is not the case.

It is quite possible to have a situation in which there is absolute equality of individual rights among all persons, irrespective of origin, while at the same time there is severe national oppression. Let us imagine the following situation: suppose that in Israel all the laws, regulations, and practices discriminating between Jews and non-Jews have been abolished; the religion and nationality of persons are no longer indicated on their ID cards; all citizens, regardless of their origin, enjoy fully equal rights in theory and practice. But suppose that at the same time Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens are not allowed to organize as a national community; Arabic is not recognized as an official language and its use is not admitted for public and official purposes; and the state does not fund educational and cultural institutions whose principal language is Arabic.

Such a situation, in which there is national oppression but no racist discrimination is possible, because national oppression does not consist in denying the individual rights of members of the oppressed people but their collective rights as a national group. Moreover, national oppression can coexist with “separation between nationality and state”: the [Israeli] state could proclaim that it does not recognize any national grouping (neither the Hebrew nor the Palestinian) but only a single category: “citizen of the state”; but in practice, since the majority of the citizens are Hebrew, their language and culture would enjoy automatic privilege — precisely according to the principle of “one person, one vote”.

The situation just described is imaginary in the context of Israel, because here, due to the colonizing nature of Zionism, there is both racist discrimination and national oppression. But there are countries in which such a situation (national oppression unaccompanied by racist discrimination) exists fully or approximately.

Moreover, even within the Zionist movement there were ideologies, and also organized groups, that recommended granting full equal rights to the country’s indigenous non-Jewish people, but at the same time denied the national existence of the Arabs and advocated repressing their national identity — in order to encourage their assimilation by the Hebrew colonizers. True, these groups never gained real political leverage in the organized Zionist movement; but they did have some ideological influence in both the Zionist left and the Zionist right.

Thus, for example, B. Borochov — one of the ideologues of “socialist” Zionism — claimed that “the natives of Palestine lack any economic or cultural character of their own”; in his view they were not one single nation, nor would they become one for a long time to come. At the same time, he opined, they are not part of the greater Arab nation: “except for language and religion, the fellaheen of Palestine have nothing in common with the Arabs”; therefore “the Arab national movement does not and cannot have any relation to Palestine”. On the other hand, Borochov asserted that “the local population of Palestine is closer in its racial composition to the Jews more than any other people, including the Semitic peoples . . . the racial difference between the Jews of the Diaspora and the Palestinian fellaheen is not greater than that between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews”. Consequently, Borochov expressed the hope that “the local population of Palestine will eventually be economically and culturally assimilated by the Jews”. Clearly, in order to encourage this assimilation, of which Borochov approved, it would be necessary to avoid racist discrimination and an apartheid policy — because apartheid is designed to impose separation and prevent assimilation.

In the 1940s, similar ideas were put forward by the Young Hebrews group, nicknamed “Canaanites”. Despite their small numbers, the Canaanites had considerable cultural influence, although they never gained any real political importance. Contrary to widespread opinion, the Canaanites were not anti-Zionist, but flesh of Zionism’s flesh, and of right-wing Zionism at that. They advocated national oppression not only against the Palestinian Arabs but also against substantial parts of the Arab nation beyond and called for the creation of a new Hebrew nation that would dominate the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates.

That nation, which would sever itself from the Jews of the Diaspora, would be formed through assimilation of the local population by the new colonizers, bearers of the Hebrew language and culture. Again, such assimilation would require granting full equal civil and individual rights.

Following the June 1967 war, the remaining standard-bearers of Canaanism became active in the Greater Israel movement but at the same time advocated a secular democratic state, all of whose citizens would enjoy full equal rights — a combination that can seem paradoxical only to those who refuse, or are unable, to understand the difference between racism and national oppression.

Especially notable among the last preachers of the Canaanite message are the important poet Yonatan Ratosh, who has had an enormous influence on modern Hebrew poetry, and his brother the linguist and grammarian Uzzi Ornan. The latter is well known for his many public appearances and comments in the press against religious coercion and racism, and for full equality in individual and civil rights between the inhabitants of Israel and the Occupied Territories. At the same time he advocates the suppression of Palestinian nationality. (Of course he does not use the term “national oppression”: he simply denies the very existence of a Palestinian nationality. But this is a transparent move, widespread all over the world: denying the very existence of a nation one wants to oppress…).

As we mentioned, these ideas have never gained much political influence in the Zionist movement. On the other hand, on the opposite side, in the Palestinian national movement, a formula that ideologically is an almost exact mirror image of the Borochovist-Canaanite ideas has won decisive influence. We are referring of course to the formula “A unitary secular democratic Palestine, in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims will live in equality and without discrimination”.

Here we must emphasize: In no way should what we say be interpreted as though in our view there is political symmetry between Zionism, or any currents within Zionism, and the Palestinian national movement: the former is a movement of colonization and oppression, whereas the latter is a national liberation movement of an oppressed people.

But this fact must not blind us to the ideological symmetry that we have pointed out here. Besides, as socialists we must not be lured by any national ideology, including that of a national liberation movement.

That formula, “a unitary secular democratic Palestine…”, has received widespread international attention following Yasser Arafat’s famous November 1974 speech at the UN Assembly. But in fact it appeared not long after the June 1967 war, and by 1969 it had become the official position of Fatah, and subsequently of the PLO as a whole. Its most detailed and authoritative elaboration and interpretation was given by Dr. Nabil Sha’th, who was then one of the chief ideologues of Fatah. From the wording of this formula, two things are immediately evident — and are confirmed by Arafat’s speech and even more so by Dr. Sha’th’s numerous detailed articles — namely:

  1. In raising the secular democratic state formula, the Palestinian movement has abandoned the talk of “throwing the Jews into the sea”, that is, expelling them from this country, which was current in the old Palestinian movement led by Ahmad Shuqeiri (and which may also be implied by the Palestinian Covenant, adopted as the founding document of the PLO in 1964 and amended in 1968). On the contrary, now the Palestinian movement was proposing to the Israeli Jews that they stay and be citizens with equal rights in the secular democratic Palestine. This is no doubt an important step forward in the Palestinian movement’s view on the Israeli Jews and their common future with the Palestinians. Moreover, there is no reason to doubt that those who adopted this formula, or at any rate most of them and the most influential ones, were fully sincere about it and did not regard it as a mere propaganda ploy.
  2. The equality proposed by the PLO to Jews within the unitary secular democratic Palestine is only individual civil equality. In other words: in the unitary Palestine envisioned by the PLO, Jews would not be subjected to racist discrimination and would enjoy (along with all other citizens) equal individual rights (including freedom of religious worship, which is considered — since the French Revolution — as an individual right). But on the other hand this formula does not recognize the existence of the Hebrew (Israeli-Jewish) nation, and hence of course does not promise it national rights.

Dr. Nabil Sha’th, who is, as we mentioned, an authoritative interpreter of the formula, expands on this. He makes it clear that the PLO formula must not be interpreted as binational, and goes on to say: “[R]eligious and ethnic lines clearly cross in Palestine so as to make the term bi-national and the Arab-Jewish dichotomy meaningless, or at best dubious. The majority of Jews in Palestine today are Arab Jews — euphemistically called Oriental Jews by the Zionists. Therefore Palestine combines Jewish, Christian and Moslem Arabs as well as non-Arab Jews (Western Jews)”.

In other words, in Palestine there exists one national entity, which is Arab and comprises the Mizrahim (who are Jews by religion but Arab by nationality) as well as the Muslim and Christian Palestinian Arabs. Apart from these there is also the Ashkenazi Jewish community, which (by implication) does not constitute a national entity, and in any case is not part of the same people as the Mizrahi Jews.

[Until not so very long ago, even some of the most conciliatory ideologists of the PLO were toying with various schemes of encouraging Israelis, particularly those whose origin is in Arab countries, to re-emigrate. See, for example, Nabil Sha’th, “Toward the Democratic Palestine” in Fateh, English publication, Lebanon, January 19, 1970.]

True, in the sequel the author draws back a little and agrees that the Jews would be granted, at least for a transitional period, “some collective or group privileges besides the pure individual privileges”; namely, “the right to … develop culturally and linguistically as a group”. He also agrees that “it is quite logical … to have both Arabic and Hebrew as official languages taught in governmental schools to all Palestinians, Jews or non-Jews”.

But he does not thereby withdraw from the denial of the existence of the Hebrew (Israeli-Jewish) people as a national group, and the refusal to grant that people real national rights. It appears that in his opinion the Israeli Jews constitute at most a linguistic-cultural-religious group, which deserves to enjoy collective rights appropriate for such a group but not national rights in the full sense. By the way, let us note that the linguistic rights offered here to the Jews living in the [proposed[ secular democratic Palestine are roughly the same as those currently accorded to Arabs and the Arabic language in Israel: Arabic is (at least in theory) an official language and is taught in many (albeit not all) state Jewish schools. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Palestinian Arabs in Israel are subjected not only to racist discrimination but also to national oppression.

We can therefore see that the PLO’s famous formula — literally and in its authoritative interpretation — offers to Israel’s Jews a future in which they would enjoy full civil-individual equality but will not be recognized as a national group and would not be granted real national rights. As far as nationality is concerned, it will be an Arab Palestine, because according to the PLO there exists in Palestine just one national group, which is Arab. However, denial of national rights constitutes national oppression.

Whoever accepts the PLO formula as a solution of national equality between Arabs and Jews reveals thereby inability or unwillingness to understand both that formula and the difference between racist discrimination and national oppression, between individual and national rights.

Against National Oppression; for Self-Determination

As stated above, we struggle against all forms of discrimination and for full equality of rights for all human beings, irrespective of origin. But whereas this struggle and these slogans address racism, they do not provide an answer to the problem of national oppression.

What is national oppression?

As we have seen, national oppression — unlike racist discrimination — does not consist essentially in denial or infringement of the individual rights of members of the oppressed people. National oppression exists wherever one nation imposes on another a subordinate status, and denies the latter the right to exist as a nation, or any of the collective rights of free national existence.

If a national group is denied the freedom to use its language and develop its culture, and is coerced into linguistic and cultural assimilation — this is national oppression. Take for example the situation of the Kurds in Turkey.

If, in a country where there are several national groups, one of them aspires to autonomy (self-rule) within a multinational framework, and is denied this right — this is national oppression. Look at the situation of the Kurds in Iraq.

If a given people aspires to establish a sovereign state of its own in the areas it inhabits (where it constitutes a substantial majority of the population) and this right is denied to it by outside intervention, by another people —this is national oppression. See the situation of the Palestinians in Palestine.

What is common to all these and similar cases, where there is national oppression, is external coercion that denies the oppressed people the freedom to exist as a national group and to institutionalize this existence to the extent it prefers: whether (1) linguistic-cultural autonomy; or (2) self-administration; or (3) limited political self-rule within a larger (multinational) framework; or (4) full political sovereignty. Briefly, national oppression is essentially denial of the right to national self-determination.

The right to self-determination is the principal national right, and includes or implies all other national rights. And since denial of the right to self-determination is what constitutes national oppression, support for the right to self-determination means neither more nor less than opposition to national oppression.

These are simply two ways of expressing the very same principle, differing only in that the former is phrased positively (“support for the right…”) and the latter negatively (“opposition to… oppression”). For various reasons, mainly educational and propagandist, the positive mode of expression tends to be preferred; but this is a secondary matter, one of style. In essence and principle there is no difference between the two formulations.

In order to forestall misunderstandings and fatuous objections, we note that the concept of the right to self-determination — like all social concepts and principles —did not fall “from heaven” but grew and evolved in definite historical circumstances. Before nations in the modern sense had come into existence, and when the very concept of nation had not reached its full development, the right to self-determination made no sense as a universal right; and the concept of national oppression as well did not exist as a separate concept, distinct from other forms of oppression, persecution and discrimination. (The same can be said about individual rights, such as freedom of speech. The very concept of a “free individual” possessing certain universal “rights” reached its full development only in the modern period, in definite historical circumstances.) If and when the socialist vision of the dissolution of national barriers will be realized, then the concept of nation will also be voided of its actual content, and thereby national rights will lose their meaning. However, in the present article we are not dealing with the historical dimension of nationhood and the national question but their current form in our present time.

The principle of the right to self-determination — in other words, opposition to all forms of national oppression — is the only general principle we, as socialists, have regarding the national question. Regarding this question we have no special ideal or detailed model that we wish to implement in every single case. For us nationality is not a separate value, let alone a supreme value. Our position on each given case is determined by the interest of the struggle for socialism. Therefore we do not have, and cannot accept, any additional general principles regarding the national question.

For example, we are not prepared to commit ourselves to recommending and encouraging each and every people to establish its own separate independent state; and on the other hand neither are we prepared to commit ourselves in advance to opposing in every case the establishment of separate national states and insisting on binational or multinational states. The only general thing we do insist on regarding this issue is that any waiving of national independence should be done freely and voluntarily, not under coercion by another people, because any framework shared by several peoples that is based on coercion by one people against another is a framework of national oppression.

There are cases where the establishment of a separate sovereign nation-state is in our view desirable as such (for example, where the people in question is struggling against the rule of a foreign colonial power, as in the case of Mozambique, 1961-1974); in such cases socialists ought to encourage aspirations for independence. Against this background, the reactionary nature of the ultra-leftist position calling for “separation of nationality from the state” is fully revealed.

On the other hand, there are cases in which we believe that the best solution is a multinational state; but even in such cases, if it transpires that the existence of this common framework involves coercion against one of the peoples concerned, within which an aspiration for separate national existence is widespread, then we must prefer separation to coercion. Because such coercion is a denial of the right to self-determination and as such constitutes national oppression.

Such is the case in which we are directly involved. We aim for the creation of a common socialist political framework for all the peoples living in the Arab East. Such a framework — which may, for example, have a federal structure — will incorporate several Arab peoples —among whom is the Palestinian people — which are component parts of the Arab nation; and also some non-Arab peoples, among whom is the Hebrew people. Establishment of such a framework means that each of the participant peoples will waive full sovereignty and settle for a suitable measure of autonomy. But we insist that this waiver must be based on the right to self-determination; in other words, it must not be imposed by one people on another. Otherwise, the common framework would be founded on national oppression, which is in total contradiction to socialism. This is of course a long-term program; but it guides our activity even at present.

Three Objections — and Our Responses

Various objections are occasionally voiced against Matzpen’s position on the national question. To some extent, they are caused by confusion and lack of proper understanding of the subject. We shall deal here with three of these arguments.

1. Our long-term program, which we have just sketched, includes among other things recognition of the right of the Hebrew people to self-determination. The following objection is put forward against this. “The Hebrew (Israeli-Jewish) people is not oppressed but an oppressor. What is the point of demanding the right of self-determination for an oppressor people? Clearly, the demand for self-determination is legitimate only with regard to an oppressed people!”

True, at present the Hebrew people is not oppressed but oppresses another people, the Palestinian Arab people. Therefore our demand for self-determination for the Hebrew people does not apply to the present; in other words, it is not an immediate demand. At present is has indeed no immediate sense. It is not the right of this people that is now at issue but that of the Palestinian people.

But the roles of oppressor and oppressed are not immutable. They may change, as has indeed happened more than once in history. An oppressor may become oppressed and vice versa. Our above-mentioned programmatic demand refers to a situation that would arise when a victorious socialist revolution in our region would overthrow the Arab regimes as well as Zionism. In that situation, the Hebrew people would no longer be an oppressor but may become oppressed: if it would be coerced against its will to join a regional political framework, that would constitute oppression. In that context we insist on the Hebrew people’s right to self-determination, because denial of this right would necessarily constitute national oppression. We are not among those who propose to establish “justice” by turning the oppressor into a victim of oppression.

However, if our demand for self-determination of the Hebrew people does not apply to the present situation but to one that may arise in future, why do we insist on mentioning it now? Why not wait and cross that bridge when we come to it?

The reason is that in our opinion the revolutionary forces ought to mobilize for the struggle for their socialist program the largest possible numbers, not only among the Arab masses but also among the Hebrew masses. To this end, it is necessary to make it clear to the latter that the socialist program does not propose to deny their legitimate rights, including the right to self-determination — in other words, their right to freedom from national oppression. We do not delude ourselves. We know that our program can only be realized in the long term, and the road leading to it is long. But this road begins here and now; the struggle for it is not only a task for the future but also for the present. Therefore our aims must be made clear right now; we cannot put off their clarification to some future date.

2. As explained above, the right to self-determination includes the right to establish a separate nation-state. Of course, right is not the same as duty, so we are not committed to supporting the establishment of a separate state in every case. But we are committed at least to consenting to the establishment of such a state if this can only be prevented by coercion and national oppression. So we are faced with the following objection. “What if there is a serious danger that the regime set up in the prospective new state is going to be reactionary? Does this not mean that your support for the right to self-determination commits you to consent to the establishment of a reactionary regime, if the people concerned would choose to do so?”

This objection is really beside the point. Consider an analogy. Suppose a slave-owner responds to the demand to free his slaves by saying that among his slaves there are some evil persons, utter villains, who no doubt would become murderers. These spurious objections (in both cases) are based on a sleight of hand of fabricating a package deal: the charge that by consenting to the establishment of an independent state we also commit ourselves in advance to consent to any regime that would be set up in it. We absolutely reject this fake package. Consent to independence is just this, and no more; it does not constitute advance approval of the regime that would be set up in the prospective state. Conversely, struggle against a state’s reactionary regime is just this, and does not constitute struggle against the very existence of that state.

3. We sometimes encounter the following objection: “How can you consent to the establishment of any nation-state whatsoever? In every nation-state, the nation to which the state ‘belongs’ has as a matter of course privileged status, which means that every citizen or resident who does not belong to that nation is under-privileged, oppressed, and discriminated against”.

In responding to this objection, we must distinguish between two cases. If what is at issue is concern about curtailment of the national rights of a national minority within a state whose majority belongs to another nation, then the answer is that the right to self-determination applies also to the minority group. The need to protect the rights of national minorities is not an argument against the right of self-determination but for it.

Alternatively, if what is at issue is not concern for the collective rights of national minorities but for the individual rights of those who do not belong to the majority nation, then this argument is based on confusion between national rights and individual rights. The existence of a nation-state neither justifies nor entails any discrimination whatsoever against individuals who do not belong to the majority nation. In any case, whether in a nation-state or in a multinational state, socialists must struggle against all forms of discrimination, and for equality of rights for all persons, irrespective of their origin and national identity. This is what the struggle against racism is all about.

Clearly, support for national self-determination does not exempt us from the struggle against racist discrimination — just as the latter struggle is insufficient on its own, and does not exempt us from supporting the right to self-determination, or in other words: opposing national oppression. These two kinds of struggle do not contradict but complement each other.

Our Position on the Immediate Term

We have seen that within Zionism there were groups (albeit small and lacking political influence) that did not support anti-Arab racism on the one hand, but on the other hand advocated national oppression of the Palestinian Arab people. Contrariwise, there is a Zionist current promoting the exact opposite line. We are referring to those hypocrites located on the “left” fringe of the Zionist camp, who are content to recognize the national rights of the Palestinian people, at least in part, but on the other hand are not averse to applying apartheid and racist discrimination against non-Jews. Of greatest concern to such people are Israel’s Jewish “purity” and the perpetuation of the privileges of Jews in this country. In order to secure these, they are prepared to pay the price of recognizing the right of the Palestinian people to establish its own state “alongside Israel”.

But the great majority of Zionists — the decisive currents in the bourgeois-Zionist, clericalist-Zionist, and labor-movement-Zionist camps — support both racism and national oppression. The difference between the various currents and groupings is only in the differing proportions of the ingredients in this nauseating brew: some give slightly more emphasis to racism and some prefer the ingredient of national oppression.

But we, as consistent socialists, oppose Zionism root and branch; we reject all its aspects and components. Thus we struggle both against Zionist racism, which discriminates against Palestinians as individual human beings, and against the Zionist oppression of the Palestinians as a people. Or, putting it in positive terms: we support both the human and the national rights of the Palestinians. This twofold principle guides us not only in our long-term program (discussed above) but also in our current struggle and immediate demands.

There is no need to expand on our demands and struggle for equality of individual rights, because this should be obvious not only to every socialist but also to every true liberal. But one point ought to be emphasized. As socialists, we are concerned in the first place with the rights of workers and all those who make a living by their own labor, the rights of the exploited, the poor who possess little or no property; we are not devotees of private property. However, we struggle uncompromisingly against any violation of private property due to racist discrimination.

When the Zionist state confiscates land from private Arab owners, precisely because they are Arabs, in order to establish on that land cooperative villages or “socialist” kibbutzim exclusively for Jews — then we take the side of the private owners against the hypocritical racist “socialism” of Zionist colonization. We reject “socialist” justifications of racism.

Similarly, we reject “socialist” justifications of national oppression. The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination includes, among other things, the right of this people to determine its own political representation. We are not adherents of the PLO; on the contrary, we have detailed and principled criticism of its tactics and strategy, as well as of its political program (part of this criticism has been made clear in the present article, and other parts have been made clear in statements published by our organization and in articles published in Matzpen). We do not regard the PLO as a socialist organization. But we take a stand against any attempt by Israel (or the United States, or the Arab states) to disqualify the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Any external attempt to dictate to the Palestinian people who is entitled to represent it constitutes national oppression.

This is the case whether or not the PLO is a “good” or “bad” organization. Similar things may be said regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We do not delude ourselves that the establishment of such a state would be a real solution to the Palestinian problem. We are also aware of the possibility that if such a state were established, it may be ruled by non-progressive forces. But we take a stand against any attempt to deny the right of the Palestinian people to establish its own state. No other nation has the right to dictate to the Palestinian people and deny its right to self-determination.

Therefore we struggle:

  • For full, immediate and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from all the conquered territories.
  • Against any Israeli attempt to dictate to the Palestinian masses who should represent them.
  • Against any Israeli attempt to dictate the future status of the territories from which Israel will withdraw.