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Palestine is Still the Issue: The Zionist left in theory and practice

My regular column for Ceasefire Magazine, 3rd September.

By Asa Winstanley

Since its inception in the latter half of the 19th century, Zionism has always been a schizophrenic ideology. It is supposedly a secular nationalist movement: yet on establishment its offspring, the state of Israel, handed the Orthodox rabbinate sweeping powers over civil affairs. To this day, non-Jews are barred from marrying Jews in Israel.

A more frequently cited division in the Zionist movement is between its “left wing” and its right wing. But in reality this division is largely an illusion.

To the extent that they even think about Palestine/Israel, people in the West often hold out hope for change happening within Israeli society itself, and earnestly point to the existence of Israeli hippies, liberals and left-wingers.

In a recent tirade against “Palestinian right-winger[s]” and the “international left” for failing to support the ongoing tent protest movement in Israel (known as J14), the normally sharp Israeli blogger Yossi Gurvitz wondered “just what sort of a leftist spends so much energy on opposing a protest intended to bring about a social-democratic regime”.

With that quote in mind, I shall very briefly review the historical reality of what “social-democratic” Israeli regimes have meant for Palestinians (though not before mentioning that Max Blumenthal wrote an excellent reply to Gurvitz on his website).

The first phase of Zionist colonisation of Palestine occurred in the 19th century. That first wave came with vague dreams about “going back to the land” (a land these mostly European and Russian Jews had in reality never lived in, since most were descendent of converts to Judaism).

Upon arrival, they found the reality of agricultural life in Ottoman Palestine tough and, more often than not, ended up re-employing Palestinian fellahin. Many of them left for Europe or America. As Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has put it “They disappropriated the fellahin, but in most cases they did not fully dispossess them” (Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 100).

The second wave of Zionist colonisation of Palestine (1904-14) showed qualitative differences. The settlers were more firm in their Zionist ideology, and many claimed to be socialists, often those from Russia. They arrived with the new ideology of “Hebrew labour” and “redemption of the land” (i.e. from its Palestinian inhabitants). What this meant in practice is that the Palestinians were thrown off the land so the colonists would be free to embark on their experiments in “socialist” communal living. And so the first kibbutz was founded in 1910.

As I have outlined in detail elsewhere, one academic, sympathetic with Zionism, even argues in a book that some of these early settlers were influenced by anarchism (Asa Winstanley, “The Receiving End of our Dreams”, New Left Project, 7 October 2010).

In the 1930s David Hacohen was the director of the construction company owned by Histadrut, the Zionists’ racist “trade union” federation (only Jews were allowed as members). He later recalled arguing in favour of racial segregation during his student years in London, not long after the First World War. I quote him at length because it illustrates well the schizophrenic nature of the Zionist “left”:

“When I joined the socialist students – English, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, African… I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs into my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there… To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs they had bought; to praise to the skies to Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] that sent [Zionist Organisation agent Yehoshua] Hankin to Beirut to buy land from absentee effendis [landowners] and to throw the fellahin off the land… to do all that was not easy.” (David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, Nation Books, third edition 2003, p. 185.)

Artzi, one of the main kibbutz federations, nurtured the Palmach – the elite units of the Haganah militia, which were often based in kibbutzim. Both the Palmach and the rest of the Haganah were essentially the armed wing of leftist Zionism. And in 1947-8, both these “leftist” militias were massive perpetrators of war crimes as they ethnically cleansed Palestine of its native inhabitants – the Palestinian Nakba, or Catastrophe. You can read about this in Ilan Pappe’s book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited by right-wing Israeli historian Benny Morris.

So the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was done under the auspices the Zionist left. But so was the occupation of 1967. The Israeli aggression that led to the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 was initiated by a government dominated by the Zionist leftist parties – who indeed were a “social-democratic regime” for its Jewish citizens only.

The first illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank were not planted by the Likud but under Labour/Alignment governments. The Likud, traditionally understood as Israel’s right wing, did not reach government until 1977, but Israeli colonization of the Jordan Valley started soon after the conquest of the West Bank.

“Operation Grapes of Wrath”, the 1996 aggression on Lebanon was undertaken by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres. The Israeli minister of war in 2006 when Israel again embarked on a massive bombing campaign of Lebanon was Labour leader Amir Peretz – at one point held out as a great hope for “change”. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point.

Almost from its inception, Zionism has been a movement based on the premise of “transferring” the native population from Palestine. In this respect, it is little different from other settler-colonial movements. The fact that the gunmen killing and expelling Palestinians could later go home and vote in their kibbutz’s internal democracies makes no difference to the material facts of their violent colonial nature.

In fact there is much to the argument that such pretensions, beautifying Israel’s image in the West actually make the Zionist left more of a threat than the openly fascist Zionist right-wing (represented by people like Israel’s current foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman) because they are more easily able to rally international support.

For all these reasons, Gurvitz shows plenty of chutzpah in expecting Palestinians and their international supporters to rally to the cause of building an Israeli “social-democratic regime”. AsPalestinian poet Dina Omar has put it “The paradox of this new movement for social justice is that the organizers understand full well that as soon as they speak about the Palestinians (the people most abused by Israeli society’s power) popular support is sure to plummet. What does social justice even mean when it is divorced from the equation of social equality?”.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears in Ceasefire every other Saturday. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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Palestine is Still the Issue: The meaning of the Norwegian terrorist’s love for Israeli war crimes

My fortnightly column for Ceasefire magazine, 6th August

By Asa Winstanley

Since Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway two weeks ago, much of the Islamophobic right has been ostensibly scrambling to distance themselves from his terrorist act. English Defence League leader Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) appeared on Newsnight pointing out that Breivik called the EDL “naïve fools” in his 1500-page political manifesto, distributed over the internet on the eve of his “martyrdom operation” (Breivik’s term). Jeremy Paxman, outrageously soft-balling, failed to point out that Breivik also said of the EDL that “although having noble intentions [they] are in fact dangerously naïve” because they did not support his particular form of violence.

Another mass killer that right-wing Islamophobic zealots around Europe have certainly not distanced themselves from is the state of Israel. Breivik himself is clearly a big fan of Israel, having a free hand to regularly slaughter Muslims as it does. His rambling online book is full of flattering references to Israel: “So let us fight together with Israel, with our Zionist brothers against all anti-Zionists,” he wrote, “against all cultural Marxists/multiculturalists”. This is from page 1163 of his “compendium”, large chunks of which were reportedly copied from other Islamophobic sources.

Breivik’s extreme Zionism has led to some media attention on the gowning links between Israel and extreme right-wing, and fascist groups from around Europe. Die Spiegel recently ran an article on the subject (“Europe’s Right-Wing Populists Find Allies in Israel”, 29 July). But this has been a growing trend for years now, and still not enough attention is being paid to it.

The British National Party these days of course supports Israel. Their leader Nick Griffin during this controversial 2009 Question Time appearance boasted of his support for Israel saying the BNP was now “the only political party which, in the clashes between Israel and Gaza, stood full square behind Israel’s right to deal with Hamas terrorists”. The EDL is notoriously pro-Israel, waving Israeli flags during their thuggish demonstrations, even establishing a (failed) “Jewish Division”.

Blogger Richard Silverstein has paid a fair amount of attention to Israel’s growing links to European fascists. He recently wrote about a visit of Russian neo-nazis to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) – a story even I couldn’t quite believe until I read past the headline (Settler MKs Welcome Russian Neo-Nazi Holocaust Deniers to Knesset, Yad VaShem, 28 July).

So what is going on here? The common denominator all these right-wing parties and groups have is of course fanatical and bigoted hostility to Muslims. Many commentators have been perplexed by Anders’ Zionism, and have tried to analyse it as if it were some sort of contradiction. But it’s not. The BNP was notorious for anti-Semitism in its past and Griffin is often accused of Holocaust denial. Breivik also clearly has some anti-Semitic ideas, implying that the German Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves: “Were the majority of the German and European Jews disloyal? Yes, at least the so called liberal Jews, similar to the liberal Jews today that opposes nationalism/Zionism and supports multiculturalism” (page 1163 again).
Zionism and anti-Semitism are not contradictory: in fact they often complement each other and have a history of alliances. Tactical synergy led to the Zionist-Nazi Ha’avara (“transfer”) agreement of the 1930s.

German Jews were allowed to remove some of their funds in the form of German-produced capital goods which were then sold in Palestine (as well as in the US and Britain), and part of this investment would then be recouped later (you can read about that in Mike Marqusee’s brilliant political memoir “If I am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew”). There was also the attempt by the Lehi terrorist group of Yitzak Shamir (later prime minister of Israel) to establish links with Hitler during Second World War.

But there are deeper ideological links between Zionism and other ethnocentric right-wing reactionary nationalist movements. They share the same goal: Hitler wanted to get rid of Jews from Europe and the Zionist movement wanted to bring as many European Jews as possible to colonise Palestine. Zionism is “united with anti-Semitism in its retrograde tenets”, as Yasser Arafat said in his famous first speech to the UN in 1974 – “another side of the same base coin”.

To understand this seeming contradiction, we need to understand that, in a similar way to the Nazi hatred of Jews, the bile of the the Islamophobes is not based on any logical thinking or rational opposition to Islam. It is bigotry plain and simple: hatred of The Other. Whip up enough irrationality and politicians can distract you from their schemes – all while you are busy picking on the most vulnerable in society.

While the EDL weakly distances itself from Breivik’s particular form of terrorist violence, it has no qualms about using racist abuse, street violence and intimidation aimed at Muslim communities around the country. Blaming the victim, the EDL outrageously tried to lay the guilt on Muslims for Breiviks’ terrorist attack: “what happened in Norway is a wake-up call. The fact that so many people are scared – people have to listen to that,” says it’s leader (“EDL leader brands Norway gunman Anders Breivik a ‘ horrible monster’”, Evening Standard, 27 July).

At the same time, Breivik’s was clearly not some insane lone gunman, as his lawyer now claims. Read his manifesto and you can see that. It is very deliberately put together. He claims to have spend nine years compiling it, and details the whole process of the how is funded and carried out his terrorist murders. The book contains long, elaborate descriptions of how he built the bomb, and how he prepared for his “martyrdom operation” (although he survived, it appears that he had been willing to die).

It is reported that at his first court hearing Breiviks claims there are other cells of like-minded “cultural conservatives” ready and able to carry out similar attacks. This is probably another one of his fantasies – but if so (and the possibility should still be investigated) it is a calculated fantasy. He is hoping to inspire others to carry out similar acts. That is clear from the detailed instructions in his book. He seems to have spent months “email farming” on Facebook so that he would have a solid list of “nationalists in all European countries” to send is completed manifesto to.

Although the large budget he claimed to have amassed from playing the stock market means it would not be easy to imitate him, we cannot rule out the possibility he will inspire other racist fanatics.

All this only makes combating groups like the EDL, who directly and viciously build on the growing climate of Islamophobia, ever more important. The EDL says it is going to “march into the Lions den” of Tower Hamlets on the third of September. In the spirit of Cable Street, it’s vital to stop the hate-mongers in their tracks once and for all.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears in Ceasefire every other Saturday. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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