For a Democratic, Secular State of Palestine; a Reply to Moshe Machover ‒ by Tony Greenstein

10 August 1990

in Articles, Khamsin Bulletin 9, Khamsin Bulletins

[This is the unedited text of a reply by one of our readers to an article that appeared in issue no. 5 of our Bulletin. The Editorial Board does not share the views expressed in this reply. We shall welcome further contributions to this debate.]


In his article “The Middle East ‒ Still at the Crossroads” Moshe Machover states that those who do not accept the existence of two nations in what is now Greater Israel/Palestine, in particular a Hebrew speaking Israeli Jewish nation, are the modern equivalent of flat-earthers. And further, supporters of a democratic, secular state in the whole of Palestine are accused of selling out to petit-bourgeois Palestinian nationalism. But whereas flat-earth supporters gain strength from the weight of evidence against them, [he] has assembled not so much evidence as a series of assertions. The question of who and what is or is not a nation is not so easily resolved. And far from succumbing to the lures of Palestinian nationalism, it is those who first assert the existence of a separate Israeli nationalism and then go on to posit solutions based on the rights of that nation to secede who make the concessions, to Israeli nationalism.

There is much in Moshe Machover’s article with which revolutionary socialists can agree. This is especially true with regard to the sections “Socialism or Nationalism” and “Fatherland Fetishism”. Indeed the only reservation I have about the former is the lack of emphasis on the distinction between the nationalism of the oppressed and oppressor. True, Moshe states that socialists have a duty to support the struggles of the former and that at the “level of political action” there is “all the difference in the world between the aggressive nationalism of an oppressing nation and the defensive nationalism of the oppressed”. However it seems somewhat inconsistent to then say that “at the doctrinal level both are equally inconsistent with a socialist world view”.

Although all forms of nationalism have certain features in common, notably the emphasis on all class alliances and the subsuming of class differences to the common national goal, there are nonetheless considerable differences ideologically between the nationalism of the oppressed and oppressor. Anyone acquainted with the nationalism of Irish republicanism, which has moved further and further to the left, understands how it differs from British and Loyalist chauvinism, the latter little different from fascist ideology. Similarly the nationalism of the struggles of the Black people in South Africa is and always was, non-racial and non-exclusivist, compared to white settler colonialism. Likewise the nationalism of the French and Hungarian revolutions in the 19th Century which abolished the ghetto walls and anti-Jewish discrimination. And despite the fact that the Palestinian national liberation movement is not particularly left-wing, indeed it is one of the most right-wing movements in the world, it is still poles apart from Zionism ‒ both its left and right variants. This is particularly true of those who still advocate a unitary, non-sectarian state. There are other differences ‒ national chauvinism in the imperialist and settler colonial countries strengthens the bourgeoisie whereas, because of its clash with the class interests of the colonial bourgeoisie, it tends to weaken the fledgling bourgeoisie of the oppressed, who are usually the first to seek a compromise on the national question, eg. the 1936 Palestinian General Strike, Partition in Ireland. Why? Because successful resolution of the national question involves a thoroughgoing social revolution, and in the settler colonial states this is especially true.

Again what Moshe states about Palestinian nationalism is true. It was not something that pre-dated colonialism but was formed by it, and especially Zionist and British colonialism. But the question is whether or not an Israeli nation was also thus formed. And here we part company, though it should be noted that even if one does accept the existence of a separate Israeli nation, this does not in itself therefore mean that a two state position (which is essentially Moshe’s position) or opposition to a democratic, secular state position necessarily follows.

Of course there is no magical formula or process that gives birth to nations. Some like the Australian and American nations are themselves the result of earlier settler colonialism. But whereas the latter two nations “solved” the antagonism between themselves and the native population through extermination, Zionism could and did not. Whereas the major contradiction within Australian and American societies are not between the settlers and the indigenous population (though it has had a major effect in shaping the imperialist nature of these states) in Israel it is quite clear that internal class contradictions are secondary to the national question.

And whereas the USA, Australia, New Zealand etc. have genuine national economies, unsupported by a sponsoring imperial power, in which internal class divisions among the whites are more important or pivotal than any antagonisms between the indigenous or racially oppressed sections, in Israel and South Africa and also northern Ireland this is not the case. South Africa’s white economy is dependent upon a super-exploited, racially-defined working class and Israel quite clearly has an artificial, highly-militarised, semi-dollar economy, propped up by the USA. In both South Africa and Israel the settler working class enjoys a standard of living far higher than it could reasonably expect through its own labour power. In South Africa, the white working class benefits from the super-exploitation of the Black working class, in Israel the Jewish working class benefits from the handouts from US imperialism, and to a less extent, the cheap labour from the Occupied Territories and Israel’s Arabs. But of course this in itself is not conclusive. If one follows Stalin’s checklist ‒ territory, language etc. ‒ then a case can be made out for a Hebrew speaking nation. However, to follow Lenin’s dictum on the national question, we have to look at each case individually. The first prerequisite of nationhood is surely that the “nation” concerned is actually conscious of itself as a nation. This is so obvious that it is taken for granted. Yet Zionism, and this includes most Israelis, do not consider themselves as such. If this were not so, then presumably the “Canaanite” tendency, which has always been a part of the Israeli body politic, would have moved from the fringe to the mainstream at some point during the last thirty years. Moshe admits as much when he says that the Israeli Jewish community, “feels in its very bones that it is a separate nation with its own language and other national characteristics (even its own style of pop music)” yet “its official ideology denies this fact”.

Of course ideology does not always march in step with reality in a mechanical relationship. But it has nonetheless a close relationship and reflects, even at a distance, that reality. The fact that Zionism, the ideology of the movement that gave birth to the Israeli state, and today the official state religion, continues to posit the Hebrew speaking Jewish people of Israel as part of a world Jewish nation testifies to the unique nature of both the Zionist project and the essentially artificial nature of Israeli nationhood. Artificial not because of the divisions between Oriental/Sephardi/Arab and Ashkenazi/Western Jews, important though they are these divisions are cemented over precisely because of the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians. Zionism can continue to maintain that Israeli Jews are not a nation because there is a substantial material basis to this ideology. What marxists have to ask is, what is the basis of Israeli Jewish nationalism? Is it cultural (pop music and other similar artifacts), linguistic, territorial? Is it territorial? All of these are indicative, but by themselves not definitive. The common bond is antagonism towards the Palestinians within Greater Israel and the Palestinian refugees and Arab people without.

Politically and economically the basis of Israeli nationalism is the sponsorship by imperialism and the consequent attempts by Israel to dominate and subjugate the Palestinian people within and the Arab peoples without, whilst seeking a greater level of independence from its imperial sponsors through alliances with other far-right states. This is the material basis of Israeli Jewish nationalism. It has not evolved from any struggle against an imperialist or foreign power, or against subjugation, or from the unification of disparate peoples or city states. It is a “nation” that has evolved from the oppression of another people, whom it has failed to remove and with whom it is in perpetual conflict. A nation that it has ironically helped to create. At the heart of Israeli Jewish nationhood is the conflict with Palestinians, both internally and externally, individually and as states. Remove this and what is left? Conflict between Ashkenazi and Oriental Jewry, Orthodox and non-religious. Who knows what would result if Israeli Jews were removed from the context in which they are presently situated. The fact is that today, nationhood has not been reached nor a nation formed. Unlike other similar states in the past, it has failed even to incorporate within it those Palestinians who have lived in Israel since 1948.

A successful anti-Zionist/anti-imperialist struggle would undermine that very identity and fragment that national/political sense of belonging.

Zionist ideology reflects that in its belief in a Jewish nation world-wide. This reflects Israel’s dependence on others, especially the Jewish diaspora, for its survival. Little wonder that 10% of this “nation” has actually emigrated to live with other nations, not least the white “nation” of South Africa, reflecting the nature of this state as a mixture of parasite and prostitute. And its culture, for example its pop music, when not directly affected by the conflict, is little more than imitative of its American counterparts. Yet in so far as the term “nation” is not capable of exact or precise definition, then it is quite possible to define the Israelis as an oppressor nation ‒ a nation that exists by virtue of that oppression ‒ but the question of self-determination does not, and cannot, arise in the present. Its future status as a nation is too uncertain for us to make programmatic demands now, which if fulfilled might simply mean the rolling back of revolutionary developments in the Middle East. Because if the Israeli state was destroyed or de-zionised, in the context of revolution in the Arab East and imperialist/US intervention, then the demand for a secession of the Israeli Jews in that context could be extremely reactionary, another Katanga. The question of Israeli Jewish nationhood is not unique. Indeed there is, by the same criteria, another such nation, the white and Afrikaaners of South Africa, who do see themselves as a separate people or volk. In Ulster too, the Loyalists see themselves as separate from the Irish (either British Ulster people). It is argued by some that the South Africa whites are merely a caste of the super-rich, but any serious analysis would show that there are much the same class divisions within white South Africa as there are within Israeli Jewry. Indeed traditionally, the most racist and chauvinist section has been the Afrikaaner working class, who in 1948 put Dr Malan’s Nationalists in power and who now, from their Transvaal and Orange Free State laager are voting in increasing numbers for the far-right Conservative Party. Five million people, more than the number of Israeli Jews, can hardly be considered a caste. And there are a number of such comparisons that could be made. Is it not the Israeli Oriental Jews, the working class, who votes for Likud and the religious/far right?

But even if the Israeli Jews are considered to be a nation, albeit an oppressor nation, the question of self-determination still does not arise, because they are not oppressed. This argument is, Moshe claims, “sheer sophism”. Self-determination means the right to choose one’s own destiny, to be free from national oppression. Usually it means a small nation’s eg. the Basques, Tamils, Kurds right to secede from larger, oppressor nations. But in Palestine it has taken an altogether different form because of the expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinians from their homeland (again just as in South Africa and Ireland). In Palestine (and Ireland) national oppression is synonymous with Partition, the division of a state and the securing of an artificial majority of settlers. In this case national oppression can only be removed by destroying that which divides and symbolises that oppression. In Palestine, self-determination for the Palestinians means the right to a unitary state, the erosion of an artificial Jewish majority, the secularisation of civil society and the removal of all individual and national discrimination. Moshe argues that this is a recipe for another form of national oppression, that of the Israeli Jews? But on what basis he does not say. To be sure historically there has been a situation where the roles of oppressor and oppressed have been reversed eg. Poland, Sri Lanka, Uganda, but it has usually ‒ in the colonial context ‒ been the middlemen of colonialism, the Asians of East Africa, the Tamils, who have suffered, not the whites of Kenya for example. In the case of settler colonialism, this is even more true. The Algerian FLN guaranteed full equality to the French settlers. That the latter chose to leave had nothing to do with a distrust of these terms, rather an inability to accept a changed role. Similarly in Zimbabwe, the whites has been smothered by generosity, and still insist on voting for the racist Rhodesia Front party of Ian Smith. Likewise Kenyan whites suffered nothing, but are still a repository of racism. I have no doubt that, in the case of South Africa, Israel and Ireland, the programmatic nature of the liberation movements is such as to remove uncertainty on this score. Of course one can never be absolutely certain on any question, but to refuse to support a revolution because it may bring about another form of oppression is an extremely reactionary position. If in the future Israeli Jews were to be oppressed then we would oppose that too. But the question of self-determination for Israeli Jews does not arise now, because that would be a cover for the right to choose state structures and a geographical entity which would best ensure their right to revert to the role of oppressor.

But of course within a unitary state, there should be guarantees for the rights of any national minority, the Israeli Jews included. Because of course the Israeli Jews would have, and do, have characteristics of a nation. Linguistic rights are the most obvious. Religious freedoms would be taken for granted. And any other rights which do not infringe on the democratic rights of the nation as a whole or lead to a return to sectarianism. Moshe outlines some of the arguments against a Palestinian mini-state in the West Bank/Gaza being part of a socialist programme. It would be an open invitation to “transfer” Israel’s Palestinian citizens, it would do nothing for the refugee question, it would mean co-existence with Zionism rather than its overthrow ‒ and one can add a few more. It would not merely be dominated militarily and economically by Israel, but politically and economically by the reactionary Arab regimes to its East. Partition could only strengthen chauvinism on both sides of the Green Line and lead almost certainly to an Islamic chauvinist regime and a blood-bath of the Palestinian left ie. those who support a democratic secular state. But despite outlining the dangers of the “two states position” Moshe also believes that it “may well represent a definite step forward, a definite improvement compared to the present situation”. Yet partition, and Ireland is a clear and unmistakable beacon, would ‒ if the argument Moshe himself uses are to be believed ‒ set back any solution of the Palestinian question precisely because it would strengthen the most reactionary and clerical sections of the Palestinian populace, gain the backing of most Arab regimes for what would be an Arab Eire, whilst leaving a Zionist Israel intact. It would mean swapping the faces of Israeli soldiers for Palestinian soldiers. And of course it would do nothing to solve the plight of the refugees. Of course we demand the withdrawal of Israeli military forces from the West Bank/Gaza, just as we did with respect to South African forces in the townships. And of course we support the creation of liberated zones in the occupied territories, including the Galilee, and the creation of as much autonomy as is possible. But to see a two states solution, an imperialist sponsored settlement, as being a solution, still less as the PLO does, a permanent solution, is an act of self-delusion. In fact the chances of Israel agreeing to such a state, or anything remotely approximating to it, are negligible. And if Israel ever did so agree, then socialists should be demanding that the revolution should go its full course rather than stopping half-way. But if a two states solution is unacceptable to socialists, then what does the democratic, secular state demand mean? Firstly it cannot be achieved other than in the context of the overthrow of Zionism. This Moshe accepts. It is the anti-thesis of Zionism’s racist and exclusivist politics. Secondly ‒ given the de-facto annexation of the Occupied Territories ‒ it poses the question of equal rights on an individual basis between Israeli Jew and Palestinian. Thirdly, it poses a general and democratic solution to the problem of Zionist colonialism and imperialism’s designs in the region (including Lebanon) and the oppression of all nations.

Yet Moshe asserts that a democratic, secular state demand is one posed within the context of capitalism rather than its overthrow. Certainly it does not make the overthrow of capitalism explicit, nor does the demands of the Mass Democratic Movements of South Africa. Yet it is inherent in those demands. I would go further. How is it possible for it to be anti-Zionist yet not anti-iImperialist. And if it is anti-imperialist then it must surely have, at least the dynamic of anti-capitalism. And because of the configuration of forces in the Middle East, with the US propping up the majority of Arab regimes as well as Israel, and because of the hostility of those regimes to the Palestine revo-lution, it is inconceivable that the overthrow of Zionism could be achieved outside of general social revolution in the Arab East, which at the very least would pose the question of capitalism’s existence in the region.

The problem with Moshe’s favoured solution, the Socialist Federation of the Middle East, is that it is totally abstract. It does not relate the maximum (socialism) to the minimum (the basic needs of Palestinian for a solution to their daily oppression). It makes no attempt to link struggles in the here and now with the means by which the solution of all oppressions, both in the Middle East and world-wide, can be achieved. It counter-poses socialism to the existing national and anti-imperialist struggles without any linkage. It is little wonder that Militant, a British group which on Ireland and the Falklands/Malvinas conflicts has always capitulated to British national chauvinism, adopts precisely this formula, because it avoids the question of Zio-nism, in the here and now. Indeed the left-Zionist Socialist Organiser group, which supports both the existence of the Israeli state and eg. the Law of Return, supports both the two states solution and the Socialist Federation of the Middle East slogan. By contrast, the call for a democratic, secular state functions as a transitional demand linking the struggles of today against oppression, national and individual, to the socialist transformation that would be necessary to ensure it. It offers a vision of an alternative society (just as the demand for a unitary non-racial South Africa does against those who advocate Indaba or group rights). Unlike the two states solution it combats Islamic chauvinism. By its very nature it is opposed to both Zion-ism and its imperialist sponsors. Of course it does not explicitly call for socialism but demands for socialism by themselves, have never achieved the desired result. They have simply resulted in the further isolation of socialists.

Far from offering the Israeli Jews nothing (and what does two states or the socialist federation offer?) it promises complete equality and guarantees of such. The democratic, secular state slogan takes the struggle forward, the Socialist Federation of the Middle East slogan (demand, dream?) does nothing.

But, Moshe asserts, this democratic, secular state formula is based on the rights of religious groups in Palestine, not national groupings. Well yes and no. The fact is that in Israel today, religion and nationality are intertwined and Israel defines itself as a Jewish state. But even if the PLO’s former demand guaranteed religious equality rather than freedom from national and individual oppression (and the lack of equality between those of a different religion is the basis of racism in Israel) that is not a reason for throwing it out, but rather re-defining and improving upon it. The democratic, secular state slogan of the PLO was an immense improvement on the chauvinist, Islamic rhetoric of the Palestinian leaders prior to the PLO’s formation. Unfortunately, rather than becoming the subject of further debate and discussion, it was de-facto discarded in the early 1970s as a result of the PLO’s diplomatic strategy and accommodation with the Arab regimes. I would advocate a combination of equal individual rights regardless of religion (which is in essence the old PLO demand) plus rights for Hebrew speaking Israeli Jews along the lines of Switzerland or Belgium where two or even three languages are national languages. Other aspects, such as separate schools, should not be encouraged. Where there are other definable national rights which are not incompatible with a secular, democratic society they should be granted. What should not be granted are entrenched religious/political rights such as minimum quotas in parliaments for specific groups.

National autonomy, which Moshe advocates as a right (though not necessarily to be advocated) could and would mean the reintroduction of Zionism by the backdoor. Israeli Jews do have the characteristics of a national minority (at least one) but they do not a nation make. Finally how can a democratic, secular Palestine, which contains a substantial (possibly even a majority non-Arab population) be consistent with Arab unity. Here too the problems are more academic than practical. Yes, the Palestinians are part of the Arab people, riven as they are by imperialism’s divisions. Yes, the Israeli Jews (or the majority) are not Arabs. But this is not an insurmountable problem. Other Arab states eg. Lebanon and Egypt also contain non-Arab minorities. There is really no contradiction in political and economic unity over a geographic area, be it Palestine or the Mashreq and or Maghreb, and the existence of substantial non-Arab groups. Even in Iraq, the Kurds would have been content with genuine autonomy if there had not been national oppression. What fuelled the demand for secession in Iraq and Turkey and Iran was such oppression. In the case of Israeli Jews, there has been no such oppression. But if there is no contradiction in there being political and economic unity over the Arab East that includes non-Arab peoples, then there is also no contradiction in the Palestinian people themselves being a mixture of Arab and non-Arab people. Part of a future Palestine will be non-Arab, but the whole will be located within the Arab/Middle East region. Historically, and this is the ultimate irony, the Israeli Jews did create a separate nation ‒ the Palestinian people ‒ but one which they too are a part [of]. To join those who they at present despise is not something the majority of Israelis will relish. I understand this. But nonetheless this is where their long-term future lies. Those who cannot accept this will go back to the United States or Western Europe. This too is a pattern of settler colonial peoples. This is especially true of those who went on Aliyah, not because they were forced to leave their countries, but from Zionistic ideology. Just as the whites of South Africa are Africans (although this is also unpalatable for them at present) so too Israeli Jews are Palestinians. All this means is that the Palestinian nation too, as Moshe himself argued, is not an ahistorical creation. it is not limited to the victims of Zionism but on the contrary includes within its boundaries those who were their oppressors.

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