In the mid-1960s, the Socialist Organization in Israel – better known by the name of its journal, Matzpen – evolved an analysis of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and an outlook regarding its eventual resolution. It saw the conflict as caused by the colonization of Palestine, which started at the end of the 19th century, accelerated following the First World War, and is still ongoing. In this conflict, Israel, a settler state that is both product and perpetrator of the Zionist project of colonization, faces the resistance of the indigenous Palestinian Arab people (For an official Matzpen formulation dating from before the June 1967 war, see ‘The Palestine Problem and the Israeli-Arab Dispute’, 18 May 1967. See also M. Machover and Abu Sa‘id (Jabra Nicola), ‘The Middle East at the Crossroads’, September 10 1969, adopted by Matzpen as position statement. For a brief later restatement, see Point 11 of Matzpen’s ‘Basic Principles’).

This analysis, far from widely held when it was put forward by Matzpen, before the June 1967 war, has by now been generally accepted by the international radical left.  It has subsequently also been advanced by left-leaning academics writing on the subject, although few of them deign to admit any intellectual debt to Matzpen.

In this connection I must put in a caveat. The academic discourse of postcolonial studies usually characterizes the Zionist project and Israel as an instance of ‘settler colonialism’, a generic category that may include all cases in which a substantial number of settlers move into a colonial territory. Matzpen’s analysis is more specific: it emphasizes the fact that the political economy of Zionist colonization is not based on exploitation of the labour power of the indigenous people but on their total exclusion and eventual elimination. From a Marxist standpoint this distinction is of course fundamental (For further discussion see my article ‘Colonialism and the natives’, Weekly Worker December 17 2015).

However, while Matzpen’s analysis of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is now shared by much of the international radical left, the same cannot be said of our position on the resolution of this conflict, summarized in the following theses.

  1. The conflict can only be resolved as part of a socialist transformation, rather than in a ‘bourgeois democratic’ framework.
  2. The conflict cannot be resolved in isolation, within the ‘box’ of Palestine. Due to the specific features of Zionist colonization, the balance of power is heavily tilted in favour of Israel (backed by its imperialist sponsor) and against the Palestinian people. The imbalance can only be redressed, and Palestinian liberation will become possible, as part of a revolutionary transformation of the region, by an Arab revolution led by the working class, which will overthrow the repressive regimes, unify the Arab East and put an end to imperialist domination over it.
  3. An Arab revolution can create the conditions for a revolutionary overthrow of the Zionist regime by the Israeli masses.
  4. The regional framework applies not only to the process whereby the conflict would be resolved, but extends also to the form of the resolution itself. The liberated Palestinian Arab people will be a partner in the regional unification, as one of the component parts of the Arab nation. A de-Zionized Israel will join the regional socialist union or federation of the Arab East.
  5. In joining the regional union, the Hebrew (aka ‘Israeli Jewish’) nation must be accorded the right to self-determination.

Theses (1) and (2) obviously exclude the ‘two-state solution’, which would set up a Palestinian micro-pseudo-state dominated by a Zionist Israel. (In any case, Israel has effectively torpedoed this non-solution.) But it also excludes the ‘one-state solution’, which envisages a liberal ‘secular’ bourgeois democracy in the whole area of pre-1948 Mandatory Palestine, comprising the pre-1967 territory of Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied by Israel since 1967 (For an instructive discussion of the unlikelihood of this kind of  ‘one-state solution’, see Moshe Behar, ‘Past and present perfect of Israel’s one-state Solution’, in Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood, John Ehrenberg and Yoav Peled, eds, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016, pp. 243–270).

I have explained the reasoning behind theses (1)–(4), and in particular Matzpen’s position on the ‘one-state solution’, in a recent article, to which I refer the reader (‘Belling the cat’, Weekly Worker December 12 2013. See also ‘The decolonisation of Palestine’, Weekly Worker June 26 2016). so I will not repeat the arguments here in detail. Let me just summarize them very briefly, as I will need to assume them in the present article, in which I will argue for thesis (5).

From our analysis of the conflict it follows that its benign resolution – decolonization of Palestine and liberation of the Palestinian Arab people – requires the overthrow of Israel’s Zionist regime. This cannot be achieved directly by forces external to Israel. External changes, global and regional, are indispensible for creating favourable conditions for the overthrow of Zionism, but the only social force able directly to achieve this overthrow is internal: the Israeli masses, primarily the Hebrew working class.

But will this class have not only the potential ability to overthrow the Zionist regime, but also an interest in so doing? No, if it is just a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ overthrow; because that would leave the Hebrew working class in its position of a socio-economically exploited and dominated class, while ending its advantages of being part of a privileged nation. Such an adverse change would in all probability be strongly resisted by the Hebrew workers, who would side with their own exploiters in fighting against it. However, a regional socialist transformation may well create a situation in which the Hebrew working class would be invited to give up its national privileges and swap them for a position of partnership in a regional rule of the working class. Such a deal would be attractive and, under favourable circumstances, could induce the Hebrew working class to play its vital role in overthrowing the Zionist regime.

(I may add, parenthetically, that this logic is not confined to Israel but applies, in various forms, to all imperialist countries. Socialism, as a new world system, will only be possible if the working classes of these countries would be persuaded to give up their national privileges in exchange for emergence from their exploited and dominated class position to become part of a worldwide dominant class.)

‘Jewish self-determination’ – a Zionist spin

Before I get into the main topic of this article – explaining and contextualizing the demand for Hebrew self-determination – I must, for the sake of clarification, contrast it with something that sounds vaguely similar but is in fact counterposed to it.

Zionist propagandists, reciting in unison from the same hasbarah briefing manual, repeat the mantra: “Zionism is the movement of national self-determination of the Jewish people in the land of Israel”. Here is a small sample out of countless similar pronouncements, all eager to revile anti-Zionism as ‘anti-Semitic’.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s resident Zionist gatekeeper:

“If one wants to criticise the historical movement that sought to re-establish Jewish self-determination in Palestine, Zionism is the right word” (‘Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem’, Guardian, March 18 2016).

Eylon Aslan-Levy, a British-Israeli news anchor and political commentator:

“Zionism is, at its core, the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determine in the Land of Israel” (‘Why anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic’”, The Times of Israel, December 8 2013).

Zionism on the web is a well-resourced website whose CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, “has been involved in the UK Jewish community as an executive member of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and a deputy on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In 2006 (during the Hizbullah crisis) [he] was the UK delegate on the Bayit Meshutaf program run by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” Here is its brief definition of Zionism:

“Zionism is the belief in a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people, in Israel.

“Zionism is the Jewish people’s instantiation of the human right of self determination.

“No more, no less” (‘Zionism in Brief’).

Helpfully, the website also offers a fuller, “accurate definition of Zionism”:

“Zionism is the national revival movement of the Jews.  It holds that the Jews are a people and therefore have the right to self-determination in their own national home.  It aims to secure and support a legally recognized national home for the Jews in their historical homeland, and to initiate and stimulate a revival of Jewish national life, culture and language.”

Like a crudely counterfeited coin, this seems plausible – provided you don’t look too closely. But a careful examination reveals, even to the naked eye, that there is something very wrong with it. In fact, there are at least two reasons for discarding it as a fake.

First, the right to national self-determination – which includes the right to form a separate state – is a modern percept, accepted internationally after the First World War, although it was discussed by socialists and others before that war. It clearly does not apply to any sort of human grouping, but only to nations in the modern sense of this term, which is essentially secular.  For example, it does not license the formation of a Presbyterian state: Presbyterianism is a religious category, not a national one. The Vatican is a Roman Catholic state, but whatever its legitimation (if any) it cannot appeal to the right to self-determination. The right to self-determination also does not apply to a religion-based group or movement that calls itself a ‘nation’, such as the African-American Nation of Islam.

Do the totality of Jews constitute a nation in the modern secular sense, to which the right of national self-determination is applicable? Zionist ideology claims that they are a nation, albeit an ‘anomalous’ one; but this is at best extremely questionable, a bit like claiming that the salamander is an anomalous fish. It has in fact been denied by many Jews, who assert cogently that Jewish identity is not national but primarily based on religion (For a detailed discussion, see my article ‘Zionist myths: Hebrew versus Jewish identity’, Weekly Worker May 16 2013). Indeed, the only attribute shared by all Jews around the world is the religion, Judaism, practised by them or by their recent forebears. Further, a necessary and sufficient condition for a non-Jew to become Jewish is undergoing a religious conversion, giyyur. Moreover, Jews can belong to various nations: a Jew may be French, American, Italian, Scottish, etc. But Jewishness excludes other religious affiliations: a Jew cannot be Muslim, Hindoo, or Roman Catholic (An exception to this exclusion was Nazi Germany, because Nazi racist ideology regarded Jewishness as a racial category, “a racial community based on blood and not a religious one,” as SS-Obergruppenführer Reihard Heydrich put it. See my article ‘Don’t apologise – attack’, Weekly Worker May 19 2016). Thus the propagandist formula describing Zionism as ‘the movement of self-determination of the Jewish people’ is invalid, being guilty of suggestio falsi.

Second, this self-justification of Zionism is spurious because it is also guilty of suppresio veri. Whatever group of people the right of national self-determination may apply to, it does not entitle them to pick and choose at will the territory over which they may exercise that right. Claims that the group’s alleged distant ancestors lived in the coveted territory many centuries ago, or that it was promised to them by a deity in whose existence many of them happen to believe, or that they have long wished to possess it, are simply not good enough. The right to self-determination certainly does not license any group to colonize a territory long inhabited by other people. But the key fact about Zionism is precisely that it is a project of colonization of Palestine, an inhabited land; and it is precisely this essential fact that is conveniently omitted by the definitions of Zionism parroted by its present-day propagandists. They avoid the word ‘colonization’ like the proverbial plague; it has become too compromising.

Earlier Zionist leaders and ideologues had no such qualms. Thus, Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940) – the political and spiritual progenitor of five Israeli prime ministers, including Binyamin Netanyahu (the others are Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert) – used in his seminal article ‘The iron wall’ (1923) the term ‘colonization’ repeatedly and unselfconsciously to describe the Zionist project:

“Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of ‘Palestine’ into the ‘Land of Israel’….

“Colonization can have only one aim, and Palestine Arabs cannot accept this aim.  It lies in the very nature of things, and in this particular regard nature cannot be changed….

“Zionist colonization must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power [i.e. Britain] that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach” (‘O Zheleznoi stene’ [‘The iron wall’], published November 4 1923 in the Russian-language journal Rassvyet [Dawn]; English translation).

To eyes with present-day sensibilities this reads as a condemnation of Zionism, but Jabotinsky, an ardent Zionist, was just being frank. Few Zionist leaders were as candid as him in admitting that Palestinian Arab resistance was understandable (among these few was General Moshe Dayan. See his eulogy at the grave of Roy Rutberg, Davar May 2 1956, quoted in Moshé Machover and Akiva Orr, ‘The class character of Israeli society’, 1972, ; also his speech at a Technion students’ meeting, Haaretz 4 April 1968, quoted in Moshé Machover and Mario Offenberg, ‘Zionism and its scarecrows’, 1978); but his use of the term ‘colonization’ to describe the Zionist project was standard and unremarkable at the time.

So we can dismiss the justification of Zionism as ‘the movement of self-determination of the Jewish people’: it is propaganda disseminated in bad faith, a camouflage for the bogus claim that Jews have a divine right to colonize Palestine.

Is there a Hebrew nation?

Turning now to the main topic of this article, Hebrew national self-determination, I must first address the question whether a Hebrew nation exits; in other words, whether the collectivity commonly – and, as I shall show, misleadingly – referred to as ‘Israeli Jews’ constitutes a nation in the modern sense of this term. At one level, this is a silly question, because the answer is obvious. As the saying goes, ‘if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck’. Anyone who has observed Israel at close quarters with an open mind can be in no doubt that its population is manifestly divided into two national groups: an Arabic-speaking minority and Hebrew-speaking majority. The former is clearly part of the Palestinian Arab people, which in turn is a component of the Arab nation.

What about the latter, the Hebrew-speaking majority? It has all the objective attributes of a modern nation: geographical concentration, common polity and modern (developed capitalist) economy with a class structure to match, as well as common language and culture. That this is a settler community, formed by recent (and ongoing) colonization, does not preclude its being a nation. Quite the contrary: if the Hebrew-speaking Israelis were not a nation, it would be a peculiar inexplicable exception, because new settler nations did emerge in all other colonized territories where – as in Palestine/Israel – the settlers’ political economy did not depend primarily on exploiting the labour power of the indigenous population, and in which the direct producers were for the most part themselves settlers. Of course, new settler nation formation did not generally occur in colonized territories where the settlers depended mainly on the labour power of the indigenous people. But it should be obvious, especially to Marxists, that to radically different political economies there correspond very different social and political structures.

So why is any doubt at all cast on the very existence of the Hebrew nation? The reason is that here we have an instance of what logicians call argumentum ad consequentiam (appeal to consequences): a fallacy whereby a proposition is denied because it has unwelcome consequences. And as usual in cases of this sort, the mental process behind it is implicit, hardly recognized, let alone admitted, by the deniers. (Compare: denial of global warming.)

Paradoxically, the Hebrew nation’s existence is denied by two diametrically opposed ideologies, each of which has its own political axe to grind: Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. Of these two, the former has been by far the more consequential, and I shall discuss it first.

Collective amnesia

Until 1948 the settler community in Palestine referred to itself as the ‘Hebrew Yishuv’. This term, which simply means Hebrew settlement, was used in contradistinction to the ‘Old Yishuv’, denoting the Palestinian Jewish community that pre-existed Zionist colonization. Moreover, the label ‘Hebrew’ was attached to virtually all organizations and institutions set up by the Zionist settlers. Thus: the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Yisrael (founded 1919); the General Organization (Histadrut) of Hebrew Workers in Eretz Yisrael (1920); the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1925); and so on and on; there was even a short-lived party of Hebrew Communists. In 1937, the right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky published a programmatic book entitled ‘A Hebrew State’; and these very words also served as one of the main slogans raised in mass Zionist demonstrations during the 1940s, following the rift between the Zionist movement and Britain. (For the widespread usage of the term ‘Hebrew’ in such contexts during the Mandate period, see my article ‘Zionist myths: Hebrew versus Jewish identity’, op. cit; and further details in Ehud Ein-Gil, ‘The nation that was erased and forgotten’, Haaretz December 13 2014. For the Hebrew Communist group, see Wikipedia. For the rift with Britain see my article ‘The decolonisation of Palestine’, op. cit.)

Throughout that period it was generally accepted, indeed taken for granted, by the settlers that they constituted a nascent national formation, a Hebrew people. They reconciled this with their Zionist ideology, which postulated the existence of a worldwide Jewish national entity, by viewing the Hebrew people as part – to be sure, a novel and distinct part – of that larger entity. (However, a small group of right-wing nationalist intellectuals, the Young Hebrews, regarded Hebrew national identity as a negation of Jewishness, which they repudiated. See my article ‘Zionist myths: Hebrew versus Jewish identity’, op. cit.) Indeed,  the settlers regarded the novelty and distinctness of the Hebrew people with pride, as it served to confirm the ideological claim that the Zionist project, by creating a ‘normal’ territorial nation would ‘normalize’ the ‘anomalous’ nationhood of world Jewry.  

This was clearly reflected in Israel’s founding document, its Declaration of Independence. The person mainly responsible for finalizing the text of this document was Moshe Sharett – who was about to be Israel’s first foreign minister and later its second prime minister – an accomplished linguist and stickler for terminological precision. The Declaration makes a deliberate distinction between the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘Hebrew’, both of which occur several times: the former consistently refers to world Jewry, and the latter always to the settler community in Palestine/Israel. Here are the final two paragraphs:

“We extend our hand to all the neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the independent Hebrew people in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

“We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Yishuv in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by it in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel” (my translation, with emphasis added, of the original Hebrew text).

The distinction between the Hebrew people – also referred to as the Yishuv – and the Jewish people dispersed around the world could hardly be clearer. And yet, at the very moment when the existence of a Hebrew people “independent in its own land” was proclaimed, it began to be downplayed. It seems that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, felt uncomfortable or ambiguous about it. Professor Yoram Shachar, who researched the genesis of the Declaration, listened to the original voice recoding of Ben-Gurion proclaiming it at the meeting of the Provisional Council of State on May 14 1948, and noticed that he deviated from the official written (and published) text: instead of “independent Hebrew people” he read out “independent Jewish people” (Shachar’s Hebrew research article, published in Zmanim, 2007, is quoted in Ein-Gil, ‘The nation that was erased and forgotten’, op. cit.)

This highly significant alteration may have been a Freudian slip. But the official English translation of the Declaration, published by the Israeli government, is certainly guilty of deliberate falsification. In the first of the paragraphs I quoted above, it replaces “independent Hebrew people in its own land” by “sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land” and in the second paragraph it replaces the word “Yishuv” (which earlier in the original Declaration is spelt out as “Hebrew Yishuv”) by the spurious “Jews of Eretz-Israel” [the text has since been “corrected” to the still spurious “the Jewish community of this country“]. The subtle intention behind the official falsification is instructive: while the local Hebrew people can only assert the mundane fact of its political independence, it is the worldwide ‘Jewish people’ that is claimed to have sovereignty over ‘its own land’, which must be the whole of Eretz Israel, aka Palestine.

In fact, within a few years the term ‘Hebrew’ as referring to a nation (rather than to its language), previously ubiquitous, virtually disappeared from Israeli public discourse, which is firmly guided by Zionist ideology that permeates the media and the educational system.

Obliterating the distinctness of the Hebrew nation was motivated by the need to legitimize the Zionist colonizing expansionary project, past and future. The Hebrew nation is a new formation. What national rights could it possibly claim? It could appeal to the right to national self-determination as commonly understood; but this would at most apply to the territory where it was a majority of the population. In 1948 this was a rather small part of Mandatory Palestine. Or it could appeal to the UN Assembly resolution 181 (November 29 1947) on the partition of Palestine, which would legitimize possession of 56% of Mandatory Palestine, including areas populated by exclusively or mainly by Arabs. In either case, this claim would have to confront and be reconciled with the stronger claim to national rights of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs.

But mainstream Zionism, led by Ben-Gurion, its most astute and determined strategist, had no intention of confining colonization to a mere part of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael. Indeed Israel has studiously avoided specifying its borders, either in its Declaration of Independence or ever since. (Ben-Gurion’s long-standing doctrine is quoted in ch. 33 of my book Israelis and Palestinians : Conflict and resolution, Haymarket Books, Chicago 2016.) Nor did it leave room for Palestinian Arab national rights: on this there had never been any difference between Ben-Gurion’s and Jabotinsky’s brand of Zionism. But this meant that invoking the existence of the new Hebrew nation and claiming national rights for it would fall far, far short of legitimizing  Zionist appetites. Something much grander was needed. As the Zionist historian Yigal Elam put it:

“Zionism could not appeal to the principle of self-determination and rely on it in Palestine. This principle worked clearly against it and in favour of the local Arab national movement. …

“From the viewpoint of national theory, Zionism needed a fiction that was incompatible with the accepted concepts of national theory. … [It] needed a much broader conception than the simplistic one. In this other conception …  referendum of the world’s Jews superseded referendum of the population of Palestine” (Yigal Elam, ‘Hanahot hadashot leota tzionut’ [‘New assumptions for the same Zionism’], Ot, No. 2, Winter 1967; my translation, emphasis in original).

This fiction is the claim that world Jewry is a national entity that has a ‘historical’ or divine right to possess the whole of Palestine and colonize it. As we saw, the spurious  ‘right to self-determination of the Jewish people’ is a marketing jingle for this fictitious claim. Outrageous as it is by any rational standard, it has nevertheless been very potent. It certainly managed to persuade not only a large number of Jews but also elites of western imperialist countries who found it politically useful.

But for this self-legitimation of the Zionist state to work smoothly, the term ‘Hebrew’ as describing a new Israeli settler nation, or even a distinct part of world Jewry, had to be abandoned. And abandoned it was. It has become virtually disused, except as a means of making some deliberate political point. (A highly exceptional recent public use of this term was made, no less, by the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who in a TV interview on April 12 2016 expounded his vision of a future confederation between two “entities”: one Palestinian and the other Hebrew Zionist.)

An effective way of obscuring the existence of an entity is to deprive it of a name. The nameless is only faintly thinkable. The Hebrew nation still exists, but having lost the memory of its proper name, it has been reduced to referring to itself by ill-fitting and confusing monikers. In official and most public discourse in Israel, members of this nation are called ‘Jews’ (while outside Israel they are usually called ‘Israeli Jews’). But this designation is ill-fitting, because there are in Israel tens of thousands of persons who are not Jewish by any criterion but are well assimilated in Hebrew society and are not regarded by most (non-religious) members of that society as belonging to a different nation. (Most of these are close relatives of Jews who were allowed to immigrate to Israel and be naturalized under the Law of Return, such as a non-Jewish spouse or child of someone who has a Jewish grandparent. While a person having a single ‘proper’ Jewish grandparent is Jewish according to some definitions – for example, the one used by the Nazi legal code and by Israel’s Law of Return – the non-Jewish spouse of such a person was not regarded as a Jew even by the Nazis. The same applies also to children of such couples, because they have no Jewish grandparent. Go, figure it out.) In addition to these Hebrew non-Jews, there are in Israel persons who are regarded by themselves and by most sane people as Jews, but whose Jewishness is somehow not quite kosher by Israeli legal standards. Such are converts to Judaism whose conversion was officiated by a non-Orthodox rabbi, who might well be – what sacrilege! – of the female gender. These would-be Jews are not recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate, which enjoys monopoly in Israel.

In informal discourse, the Hebrew nation is often referred to by its own members and by others simply as ‘Israeli’. But this too is confusing, because Israeli law recognizes this term as denoting citizenship, not ethnicity or national identity. Moreover, as we saw, there are clearly two Israeli national groups: Hebrew and Palestinian Arab. This confusion is further compounded by the fact that an Israeli passport does say “Israeli” under the Nationality rubric. But this is because, according to international convention, this rubric in any passport denotes the citizenship status of the bearer, not his or her national identity. For example a UK passport states under the rubric Nationality/Nationalité the citizenship of the bearer (for example, “British Citizen”) not whether s/he is English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Indeed, in an Israeli passport the rubric Nationality is translated into Hebrew by a word ezrahut, meaning citizenship.

Having descended into a state of collective amnesia and disremembered its own proper name, the Hebrew nation has become uncertain about its identity – which is just fine as far as Zionist self-legitimizing propaganda is concerned: it can go on claiming that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people”.

But on rare occasions the old memory resurfaces, and the officially induced confusion is lamented even by some old-time Zionists, such as the Hebrew poet Haim Guri. The extended title of his article on the subject speaks for itself: “Israelis used to be Hebrews, now what are we? – More than six decades after their state was founded, Israelis still grapple with their identity” (Haaretz, February 25 2014).

The ‘one-state solution’

From a Zionist viewpoint, admitting the existence of the Hebrew nation is inconvenient because it falls short of providing adequate legitimation for the grandiose claim that the entire ‘Jewish people’ has a ‘historical right’ to possess the whole of Palestine. But from a Palestinian Arab nationalist perspective, recognizing the existence of the Hebrew nation poses an opposite problem: it implies coming to terms with a reality created by the Zionist project that gave illegitimate birth to this settler nation on Palestinian soil. Admitting its existence would automatically raise the unwelcome issue of its national rights. After all, if such rights were only accorded to immaculately conceived and innocently born nations, then few nations indeed could claim them.

A nationalist movement may be compelled or outmanoeuvred to concede possession of part of what it regards as its homeland, but it would view this as a temporary imposition of adverse realities. Even if there is no realistic prospect of reversing the concession in the foreseeable future, nationalist ideology will resist accepting the legitimacy in principle of any rival claim to national rights in the homeland.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization crystallized a new long-term programme in 1969, when it was at the peak of its militancy and optimism, before suffering its first major reverse in the Black September of 1970. This programme was in fact promoted by al-Fateh, the dominant component of the PLO, led by the late Yasir Arafat. By that time, mainstream Palestinian nationalism had come to terms with the painful realization that the Hebrew Israelis were there to stay, and had to be accommodated in a future free Palestine. But it could not accept the inconvenient fact that they had become a new Hebrew nation. Instead, it regarded their collective identity as denominational: they were adherents of the Jewish religion living in Palestine. Its vision of the future Palestine, which it hoped to achieve by armed struggle, is expounded in English in an authoritative unsigned article entitled ‘Towards the democratic Palestine’, published in the official journal Fateh. It calls for “a democratic non-sectarian Palestine where Christians, Jews and Moslems can live, work and worship without discrimination” (‘Towards the Democratic Palestine’, Fateh [English-language newspaper published by the Information Office of the Palestine Liberation Movement] Vol II, No. 2; January 19 1970). This formula, often abbreviated as “a secular democratic Palestine”, was deliberately designed to suggest a future Palestine in which Jews would have individual equality and freedom of religious worship in a unitary Palestine. A bi-national interpretation is explicitly rejected as a “misconception”:

“[t]he call for a non-sectarian Palestine should not be confused with … a bi-national state….  Furthermore, religious and ethnic lines clearly cross in Palestine so as to make the term bi-national and the Arab–Jewish dichotomy meaningless, or at best quite 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)” (Ibid. In 1970 the majority of Hebrews were indeed immigrants from Muslim-majority, mostly Arab countries, referred to as Mizrahim [Oriental]. The fallacy that these could be regarded as Arab by nationality is discussed in Ehud Ein-Gil and Moshé Machover, ‘Zionism and Oriental Jews: Dialectic of exploitation and co-optation’, Race & Class, January 2009; vol. 50, 3: pp. 62-76; also downloadable).

According to this Palestinian Arab nationalist view, there is and will be only one national group in Palestine: Arabs (of various religions). The rest of the inhabitants are “non-Arab Jews”, presumably having no national identity. Indeed, the mono-national character of the projected secular democratic Palestine will be Arab:

“The liberated Palestine will be part of the Arab Homeland, and will not be another alien state within it. The eventual unity of Palestine with otherArab States will make boundary problems less relevant…” (‘Towards the Democratic Palestine’ op. cit.; emphasis added).

Thus the ideologies of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism concur in denying the Hebrew nation’s existence, and both refer to its members simply as ‘Jews’.  They differ however on what this Jewishness means, as well on the national identity of the Israeli Jews. According to Zionist fiction Jewishness is a national category, and Israel’s Jews are simply those members of the world-wide Jewish nation who live in the Jewish national homeland. Palestinian nationalist ideology maintains (correctly) that Jewishness is a religious category; but it clings to the strange fiction that the Jews of Israel/Palestine do not all belong to the same nation: the majority are Arabs, while the rest are presumably devoid of any national identity.

The PLO’s programmatic vision of the late 1960s soon became a dead letter as far as that organization was concerned. Its armed guerrilla forces, concentrated in Jordan, were mauled by the Jordanian army in the Black September of 1970, and decamped to Lebanon, where they were shattered by Israeli invasions, first in 1978 and finally in 1982. By the 1980s the PLO had accepted a ‘two-state solution’, which would leave about 22 per cent of the area of Mandate Palestine for a Palestinian Arab micro-state ‘alongside Israel’. The Oslo Accords of 1993 did not even secure the PLO this consolation prize. The PLO has been left with the so-called Palestinian Authority, whose main function is to act as Israel’s security subcontractor.

However the vision of a secular democratic Palestine has been reincarnated as the ‘one-state solution’, advocated by some bourgeois liberal Palestinians and various supporters of Palestinian rights around the world, including Israelis of both national groups. You can find several versions of this vision on the internet; a typical example is a statement entitled “A State of ALL its Citizens: The One-State Vision and Foundational Principles of a Republic in Historic Palestine”, signed by seven academics (five Palestinian Arabs and two Hebrew Israelis, all but one of the seven are expatriates). The state envisaged in this and similar statements is evidently inspired by a highly idealized version of post-apartheid South Africa: what it was promised to be rather than what it turned out to be. It depicts what is essentially a bourgeois democratic state with a capitalist economy ameliorated by liberal reformist promises of ‘social justice’ and ‘equal opportunity’. The class nature of the society is not discussed. (In fact, in the statement by the seven academics the word ‘class’ is never used.) The Palestinian refugees will be invited to return. Equality of individual rights will be guaranteed; but the existence of two discrete national groups in the proposed single state – let alone the question of their collective national rights – is not mentioned.

Undoubtedly, the vision of a single democratic state in the whole of Mandate Palestine represents a huge and highly desirable improvement compared to the present situation. Its attractiveness is therefore not in doubt. But all variants of this vision share a fatal flaw: they provide no indication as to the process leading to an overthrow of the Zionist regime and its replacement by the single democratic state; nor do they tell us what social forces would lead this process. In particular, they do not tell us how and by whom the Hebrew people would be induced to accept being transformed from a dominant oppressing nation into a minority without any institutionalized national status and rights. The one-staters do not deal with these questions of process and agency, which indeed have no credible answers.

Socialist allies of bourgeois liberals

Among the advocates of the ‘single democratic Palestine’ there are some socialists, including a few who regard themselves as Marxists. Lamentably, instead of developing an independent socialist perspective, they are content to subscribe to what is quite clearly a bourgeois liberal vision. And what is most astonishing is that, just like their liberal allies, they fail to answer or even raise the questions of process and agency, which a Marxist ought to regard as absolutely crucial.

As typical representatives of this negligent line of thinking, I will quote two people whom I regard as friends and comrades: Tony Greenstein, a frequent contributor to Weekly Worker, and Tikva Honig-Parnass, a veteran Israeli socialist who at one time subscribed to the Matzpen position but has changed her mind and joined the one-state advocates. Both deny the existence of the new Hebrew settler nation, for which there is no room in the one-state vision, and a fortiori they oppose its right to self-determination under any circumstances.

Comrade Tony is categorical:

“Jack [Conrad] asserts that an Israeli-Jewish nation has arisen.  I disagree.  An artificial political entity has arisen which has the trappings of a nation.”

This would make Palestine an inexplicable exception among all countries that have been subject to exclusionary colonization (i.e., whose political economy did not depend on indigenous labour power) such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In those countries there are settler nations that are presumably natural entities rather than artificial political ones. Tony does not mention these cases of exclusionary colonization. Instead he goes on to compare the colonization of Palestine with that of South Africa:

“Of course it [the artificial political entity] is in the majority [in Israel], unlike in South Africa, because it consciously sought to exclude the Arabs from its borders.  South Africa never did this, even at the time of its Bantustanisation policy.”

Yes, precisely! Without realizing it, Tony has stumbled on the fundamental difference between the two species of colonization, which should be clear to any Marxist. Under exploitative colonization, such as that of South Africa, the settlers did not form a new nation but an exploiting quasi-class; whereas in all cases of exclusionary colonization the settlers became a new nation. Tony continues:

“Yes it [the artificial political entity] speaks the same language, generally and certainly it lives in the same contiguous area.  But a nation is something like a ‘chose in action’.  It is intangible. States and nations usually correspond.  Not so Israel where Arabs are excluded from the nation.”

This is simply untrue: there are very few mono-national states. States and nations do not usually correspond.  Tony should surely know this: he lives in a multi-national state. In fact, most states that claim to be mono-national do so in order to hide and deny the existence of their suppressed national minorities. The prototype of this spurious mono-nationality is France, but a more blatant example is Turkey. Ignoring this, Tony continues:

“Israel represents the Jewish nation, including myself.  It doesn’t recognise itself as a separate Hebrew nation, which is the weakness in Machover’s argument” (Tony Greenstein, ‘Self-determination is not an abstract principle’, Weekly Worker May 27 2009).

So the ‘weakness’ in Machover’s argument is that he rejects the Zionist ideological claim that Israel represents the fictitious world-wide ‘Jewish nation’, a claim that comrade Tony is apparently ready to accept at face value. He is ready to do so because he shares with both Zionist and Palestinian Arab ideologies their denial of the existence of a Hebrew nation.

Occasionally Tony is prepared to admit the existence of the Hebrew nation, but he does so only provisionally, for the sake of argument and in order to deny its right to self-determination:

“But if Israeli Jews are a nation then they are an oppressor nation.  Their very definition is in opposition to the indigenous population.  … To talk about ‘self-determination’ of such a nation makes as much sense as to talk of self-determination of the American or Afrikaner or the Russian nations” (Ibid).

Elsewhere he says:

“People are getting hung up on the question of ‘national self-determination’. Supposing that the Israeli Jews or Hebrews are a separate nation, which I doubt, then the question is, what type of nation? It is clear that Israeli Jews, just like the white South Africans and Afrikaners before them, are above all oppressors of another group of people or nation.  That is their identity; that is what makes them a nation (‘Rejigged Zionism’, letter to Weekly Worker, March 19 2009; emphasis added).

Tony knows perfectly well that Matzpen, and I personally, never upheld the right to self-determination for the Hebrew nation in the present situation, when it is indeed an oppressor and has its independent state. Such a demand would indeed be both wrong and vacuous. We have insisted on Hebrew self-determination in a future situation, in which the Zionist regime will have been overthrown. In that context, the Hebrew nation would no longer be an oppressor. Indeed, denying it equal national rights with other nations of the region would, by definition, make it an oppressed nation. But this argument cuts no ice with Tony, because in his view the Hebrew nation – if it exists – is an oppressor by its very nature and essence, and can never be other than an oppressor.

Secession or accession?

Like Tony, comrade Tikva also insists on dismissing the fundamental structural difference between the Zionist settler state and apartheid-era South Africa. In fact, a major part of her polemical article from which I will quote is devoted to denying the significance of this difference.[31. Tikva Honig-Parnass, ‘One democratic state in historic Palestine, International Socialist Review #90, July 2013.) I have refuted her arguments on this question in a previous article (‘Belling the cat’, op. cit.) so I will not deal with them here, but go on directly to the crux of the matter: her denial of the existence of the Hebrew nation. In this she goes even further than Tony: bizarrely, she attributes to me the invention of a Hebrew nation:

“Inventing the Hebrew nation and placing it on the same level as the Palestinian nation allows Machover to present a presumed homogenous ‘socialist’ approach which recognizes nations’ equal rights for self-determination.”

All I can say about this attribution is that it must have involved prodigious disremembering on Tikva’s part. I am prepared to bet my bottom shekel that many years ago she heard and read lots of references to the Hebrew nation or the Hebrew people. (And no, I did not draft Israel’s Declaration of Independence.) She goes on:

“However, the Marxist call for self-determination has never placed an equal sign between the rights of the oppressed and their oppressors. What Machover suggests implies that the subjugated Palestinians should guarantee the Zionist colonialists that in the post-Zionist socialist federation they would be granted equal rights for self-determination”.

Here comrade Tikva is unwittingly guilty of a major misunderstanding, which I must clear up in some detail because it is shared by other socialists, especially Leninists, who reject Matzpen’s advocacy of Hebrew self-determination. The source of their error is the fact that they derive their understanding of the right to national self-determination from Lenin’s pre-First World War polemical writings on the subject. The issue at the time was the position that socialists ought to take towards national movements of subordinate and oppressed nations within existing multinational empires, who demanded the right to secede and form their own independent states. Should socialists support this secession right, at least in principle? Could they condone or tolerate forcible suppression of such secessionist movements? Inadvertently, these comrades assume that national self-determination is always essentially about secession.

This is indeed the sense in which the right of the Palestinian Arabs to self-determination should be upheld at present. But the scenario within which Matzpen posed the issue of Hebrew self-determination is quite different. It is not mainly about the right of secession from a regional socialist federation. Such a federation does not exist right now in reality; it is a project for the future, part of the programme of revolutionary socialists. So before the issue of secession from this future federation can even be posed, there is a prior question: that of accession. In other words, should the mode of the Hebrew nation’s accession to that future federation be coercive or voluntary?

Early on, in the mid-1960s, we in Matzpen arrived at the insight that I outlined in the preamble to this article. We reached the sobering realization that the overthrow of Zionism will not and cannot be achieved mainly from the outside, against the wishes and resistance of the Hebrew masses. Regional and global changes will be necessary conditions for overthrowing Zionism, but the task itself will require the active participation of the Israeli working class. And the only chance of gaining consent, let alone participation, of the Hebrew majority of this class in overthrowing Zionism is offering it partnership as part of the new dominant class in a workers’ regional federation. This is Matzpen’s independent socialist, class-based position, very different from the bourgeois liberal one-state vision.

Once the issue is posed this way, it is pretty clear that accession of the Hebrew nation to a future socialist federation of the Arab East can only be voluntary. Moreover, it would be a grave error on the part of socialists to condone, let alone advocate, attempts at a forcible accession. But this means that Hebrew accession to the federation would occur by exercising self-determination.

Those who oppose Hebrew self-determination in the sense I have just explicated should consider carefully and soberly what alternative route they propose to the overthrow of Zionism. Military conquest? By whom? What would be the likely consequence of a serious attempt at overthrowing Zionism from the outside by force of arms? And supposing for a moment that such an attempt would succeed rather than ending in a regional catastrophe  (as is infinitely more probable); think of the repression subsequently required to suppress the resentful vanquished nation. No, thanks.

Socialists who reject Hebrew self-determination are not just being reckless. They are guilty of dereliction of duty. Voluntary participation of the Hebrew working class in overthrowing Zionism and joining forces with their regional class brothers and sisters is a possibility, but is by no means assured without proper political preparation long in advance. It is a project of long duration that should be engaged in right now, and must involve patient efforts both in Israel and in the Arab region.