In the 1970s, I became a supporter of the struggle of the Palestinian people for their national rights. Like most children of my generation in New Zealand, I had been taught to cheer for Israel in the 1967 war. I recall drawing Israel’s expanding borders in my school books in the wake of that war.
When I was won to the Palestinian cause, it was still very much a minority postion, and I had to defend my ideas carefully. Against the charge that I was anti-Semitic and was supporting ‘driving the Jews into the sea,’ I replied that I was not anti-Semitic but anti-Zionist; I opposed the state of Israel because it was founded upon the violent dispossession of the Palestinian inhabitants and constituted according to the Zionist vision, as a state for Jews only, to the exclusion of the Palestinians. I supported the slogan of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) at the time: for a democratic, secular Palestine, where Palestinians, Christians and Jews could enjoy equal rights. To argue the case about the nature of the Israeli state, I used to draw parallels with the apartheid regime in South Africa, its strict system of racial segregation and legal discrimination against the Black majority.
I remain a supporter of the Palestinian struggle today. But I no longer describe myself as ‘anti-Zionist.’ Changes that have taken place in Palestine since the 1970s have rendered the term confusing, meaningless, and downright dangerous. In fact, I believe that the old charge that anti-Zionism equates to anti-Semitism, which I energetically refuted for many years, has now become, at least partly, true.
What are these changes?
The consolidation of more or less stable bourgeois governments in the Arab countries and throughout the Middle East. When US and British imperialism sponsored the founding of the state of Israel in the wake of World War 2, the Arab world was in the throes of widespread anti-colonial ferment. Israel became imperialism’s chief point of support against the Arab revolution, its ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier,’ and it retained that role for many years. Today there are solid bourgeois governments in Egypt, Algeria, Iran – all of which experienced revolutionary upheavals in the fifties and sixties, and in Iran’s case, again in the seventies – and across the region. In these governments, imperialism has gained a bunch of other unsinkable aircraft carriers as points of support. Promising as the Arab Spring is, it has not yet seriously threatened bourgeois rule in any country.
The retreat of the Palestinian leadership. The PLO in the 1970s and 80s was leading a mass struggle for a democratic secular Palestine. The high point of this struggle was the first Intifada, where for several years beginning in 1987, tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians mounted acts of resistance and civil disobediance in protest against the Israeli forces in the occupied territories. The intifada, more than any other single event, won world opinion to the side of the Palestinian struggle and isolated the Israeli regime. But the blows rained down upon the Palestinians, combined with the intensifying political pressures from their ‘friends’ in the bourgeois Arab governments, took their toll on the leadership. The PLO retreated from the perspective of mobilising the Palestinian masses to fight for a democratic secular Palestine. It accepted the ‘two-state solution’ first as a bargaining position, then as its permanent perspective for Palestine. Increasingly as building a capitalist economy in the territory of the Palestinian Authority became its sole preoccupation, it sought accommodation with Tel-Aviv at the expense of the Palestinian workers and farmers. A rival current arose, Hamas, more radical in phraseology, but equally bound to a bourgeois programme and methods, and equally indifferent to the interests of Palestinian working class. Today there is no significant current anywhere in the Middle East that speaks for the interests of workers and farmers.
- The abandonment by the Israeli rulers of the Zionist vision. In the 1970s, Israel was aggressively expanding its territories by military means, grabbing territory from its neighbours in pursuit of the Zionist vision of a Greater Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. That is no longer the case today. The Israeli rulers are still expanding their economic activities and domination of the occupied territories, but for all practical purposes they have accepted the present borders of Israel – as defined by the repugnant wall – and the existence of the Palestinian territory. A minority of the world’s Jewish people – 5.3 million of the total 13 million – live in Israel. More Jews live in the United States than in Israel. The state founded by the Zionist movement still exists, along with an attachment to that state by many Jews, but Zionism as a political movement, through which Israel postures as a haven for the world’s Jews, no longer exists in any meaningful sense today. Given that this is so, the sole justification for using the term Zionism today rests on there being some special Zionist character to the Israeli state, which distinguishes it as a pariah state, worse than the other imperialist states. Is this the case? This is where the comparison with apartheid South Africa is often quoted.
How valid is it to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa? Every imperialist state has some things in common with the others, and some unique characteristics born of its own unique history. They were all founded on the violent dispossession of the indigenous peoples from the land, including the oldest imperialist state of all, the United Kingdom. Israel’s uniqueness lies in its being the youngest of them all, and so the act of dispossession is still relatively recent and raw, and is still actively contested. However, the longer Israel continues to exist the more it comes to resemble every other imperialist state, the more Israeli capitalism brings into being a multi-national working class, both within Israel proper and in the occupied territories (including the Soda-stream factory), and the less the Palestinian territories resemble the South African “Bantustans.”
The working class in Israel today includes, alongside Israeli Jews, tens of thousands of Filipino, Thai, and Chinese immigrant workers on temporary visas, Palestinian workers from the West Bank, as well as Arab citizens of Israel and Ethiopian and Russian Jews, who have citizenship rights. The brutal discrimination and oppression of the Palestinians continues, yet the material basis for fighting it through common struggle between workers of different nationalities and religious beliefs is stronger than ever before. Israeli society, no less than in the other imperialist states, is class-divided. Winning Jewish workers to support self-determination for their Palestinian co-workers, against Jewish bosses and bourgeois political leaders, is both possible and necessary. Using the term ‘Zionist’ today to describe Jewish workers who still look to the Israeli state to defend their interests is an obstacle to building that fight.
- The new rise of anti-Semitism. A few weeks ago a large rightist protest took place in Paris around the slogan of ‘defence of the family,’ opposing laws legalising marriage and adoption for gays. A section of this march began chanting anti-Semitic slogans including “Juif! Casse-toi! La France n’est pas a toi” [Jew! Get out! France doesn’t belong to you!] “Juifs hors de France!” [Jews out of France!]. (This has been disputed by some witnesses to the march – see the video evidence here). This is a timely reminder of the fact that the germ of anti-Semitism still lurks within capitalist society, and as that society decays, it erupts in a virulent form. Increasingly, Jew-hatred also takes ‘anti-Zionist’ cover. Hamas and the other bourgeois leaderships in the Middle East routinely put forward anti-Semitic politics in the name of defending Palestinian interests and of opposing ‘Zionism.’ The founding programme of Hamas from 1988 includes the following about the Jews:“With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others… With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world… They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution…With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there…They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources… There is no war going on anywhere, without having their finger in it.”
It is not difficult to hear in this echoes of the century-old anti-Semitic forgery concocted by the Russian Czarist regime, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Nor is anti-Semitism among the bourgeois Arab leaderships anything new. What is new is that with the abandonment by the PLO of its earlier revolutionary course, many in the worldwide movement in solidarity with the Palestinians have been tacitly following this anti-Semitic line from Hamas. Protests have been targetted against businesses such as Starbucks and Marks and Spencer purely on the grounds that they are Jewish-owned. “Anti-Zionism” has lost the progressive meaning it once had, and has become nothing but left cover for anti-Semitism.
The evolution of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the anti-Semitic comedian now winning a popular following in France, is an instructive example of this political course. Once a left social critic, he has gone all the way over to the ultra-right. He invites holocaust-denialists to share the stage with him. He makes threatening jokes about his Jewish critics, referring to gas chambers. Dieudonné claims to be the inventor of the ‘quenelle,’ the arm-gesture which he insists is not a form of the Nazi salute, not anti-Semitic, but is ‘anti-establishment.’ (Elsewhere he expresses the view that Jews own and manipulate ‘the establishment.’)
The fact that Dieudonné does all this in the name of ‘anti-Zionism’ is not the cause of his rightward political evolution: that process is driven by far bigger class forces. But by calling it ‘anti-Zionism’ he is able to draw behind him, onto the bridge which leads over to the ultra-right, forces who would not normally consider themselves anti-Semitic. (For an example, read Blasphemy in secular France, a defence of Dieudonne that appeared in Counterpunch).
One’s political stance is not determined by what one opposes, but by what one supports. The ‘anti-Zionist’ cause encompasses, along with many genuine supporters of the Palestinian struggle and a great deal of confusion, a collection of bourgeois governments with their own reactionary goals, and some clearly anti-Semitic, anti-working class and outright fascist forces.
As the bourgeois Arab regimes have amply demonstrated over the past sixty years, a movement in solidarity with the Palestinians can not be built on a foundation of Jew-hatred.