Pro-Palestine, Pro-Israel

Given it is a time of the year when there is little opportunity for writing longer postings, I’ll be reposting a few long-forgotten items from the HP archive.

I’ll start off today with this piece I wrote on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’ve not personally written much about that issue here but I think this post still stands up as a description of my views on what a progressive position should be and why I oppose the ‘anti-imperialist’ left’s line on the matter.

First posted: October 07, 2004.

When I first got involved in left-wing politics in the 1980’s, the main division I noted over this issue was between those who called for a ‘two-state solution’ and those who used slogans such as for ‘working class unity’ and for a (single) socialist state.

The latter slogans had their appeal to a teenage socialist but when I began to reject all kinds of ultra-leftism, I naturally rejected the utopian notion of a single socialist state being a realistic immediate solution to this violent conflict in the Middle East. It was not a matter of actually being against the idea of a single, socialist state, or a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. I was (and still am) in favour of regional (socialist or otherwise) federations. In fact, for what it is worth, I was (and am) entirely in favour of a world commonwealth of democratic socialist states, where religious and ethnic hatred no longer has a place and where men and women peacefully co-operate together for the common good. But, to anyone except the ultra-leftist, there is obviously a rather large ‘but’ that has to follow such statements, especially these days.

Back then in the 1980’s I recall debates with the Militant tendency about this issue, when those of us in the Communist Party who supported the official line of a two state solution (a position we shared with a large section of the Labour left and most liberal opinion), were told we had lost faith in the working class and wanted to divide rather than unite. Our response was that unfortunately the division already existed and the bitterness of the conflict could only be overcome by settling the conflict in favour of an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel. Then, and only then, other things might become possible.

As you may have realised, that debate now sounds extremely antiquated. No-one on the left talks about federations and working class unity anymore. That is shame because whilst on this issue Militant and others were guilty of the naivety, utopianism and workerism that often characterises ultra-left politics, that was all they were guilty of. They adopted a few Palestinian Trotskyist trade unionists as their campaign mascots and that was about it. They didn’t support Hamas suicide bombings or call for the driving of the Jews into the sea. They didn’t adopt the rhetoric of Arab chauvinism or Islamism.

And whilst a few would mock our position as ‘Zionist’, we actually supported the PLO as the national liberation movement of the Palestinian people. We wore our little Palestinian badges and some of us owned and sometimes wore the kuffiyeh scarf. Did we really know what we were supporting? Had we studied in depth the history of the conflict? Not in my case, no. But then I hadn’t studied and understood the history of a whole range of national liberation struggles that I quite happily lent my supposed support to.

I should point out that at the same time as I was wearing my badge and my kuffiyeh I was also heavily involved in anti-fascist activity, working alongside a people I had never knowingly met before leaving Lancashire – Jews. So while we communists attended meetings of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign we also held anti-fascist meetings with holocaust survivors and organised Anne Frank exhibitions as well as sometimes chasing the BNP and NF around the streets. And no-one thought there was anything unusual about any of this.

I don’t recall any anti-fascist activist, or anyone else for that matter, ever suggesting that our support for Israel’s right to exist made us racist or imperialist. Likewise none of my Jewish friends (not all communists and some proud to be simply described as Zionists) ever suggested that by backing the Palestinian right to an independent state we were in any way anti-semites.

Over the past ten years though and intensifying since the start of the second intifidah, there has been a change in the position of many on the British and European left. Not only because no-one talks the language of worker’s unity anymore but because criticism of the actions of the Israeli state is no longer merely criticism and support for a Palestinian state is no longer simply support for a Palestinian state.

The criticism of Israel has gradually become demonisation. Israel is an ‘apartheid state’, a ‘colony’, Zionism is racism. Now it is not at all uncommon to hear the most deliberately hurtful, provocative and malicious false charge of all – that the actions of the Jews of Israel are comparable to those of the Nazis who exterminated six million Jews ( a view which is music to the ears of holocaust revisionists). Gross distortions of the history of Israel and the Zionist movement are widely circulated and by no means exclusively on the far left or the far right.

The demonisation of Israel has been spread on the British left most prominently by the Socialist Workers Party, a group who do not support a two-state solution but instead call for a single Palestinian state – the end of Israel. Along with extremist Islamist groups they have quite successfully turned the genuine humanitarian and internationalist solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians into a hateful campaign of vilification against the whole notion of a Jewish state. Instead of fantasy-Bolshevik sloganeering we now have the parroting of the rhetoric of the most reactionary of Islamist movements in the Middle East. The terrorist group Hamas, despite a charter which contains the most explicit examples of Nazi-style anti-semitism and despite a policy of deliberately targeting civilians, are now considered fighters against oppression by large sections of liberal and left opinion.

The conflict has been transformed into one between ‘good people’ (Palestinians) and ‘bad people’ (Israelis or Zionists). The only Jews who seem able to avoid the broadbrush of guilt are those who agree that the Israel should surrender and be abolished, people routinely described as ‘brave’ without any explanation of what makes such a position, with its potentially calamitous outcome for Israelis, courageous.

Added into this poisonous mixture are the old claims of the existence of secretive but powerful Jewish ‘lobbies’, the notion of the cabal of Jews as the dark masters controlling the ‘puppets’ who rule over us in politics, the economy and the media. It is little wonder then that we are seeing the reappearance in some parts of Europe of old-style anti-semitism. What few would have predicted is that so much of this racist propaganda is coming from the left.

Whether it was right, 15 years ago, to consider the PLO as fighters for Palestinian liberation is a question for another time. What is clear is that if the Palestinian national struggle was once led by supporters of a secular Palestinian state alongside Israel, it is increasingly dominated by Islamists who have no interest in negotiations or peace-deals, no interest in secular democracy and to which no socialist worthy of the name could lend his support. The suicide bomb tactics, the targeting of civilians should be condemned unequivocally but rarely are.

But no socialist or internationalist should, despite the appalling degeneration of so much of the left on this issue, feel any reluctance to urge Israel to pull out of the Palestinian land it occupies. Just because the Islamists and their apologists in Europe have chosen to focus on the grievances of the Palestinian people, to exploit them, does not lessen the validity of those grievances. Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories, dismantle the settlements and secure itself in its pre-1967 borders. It can do so without need of any negotiated settlement, peace conferences or international agreements.

Likewise, while Israeli security steps and military actions are always exploited by its enemies that does not mean that anyone should feel unwilling to hold the its leaders to the same standards as any other country.

In this respect my views have not changed in the 15 years since one comrade described the two-state position as ‘Pro-Palestine and Pro-Israel’. What I have rejected is the idea that if Israel takes the steps it should take and withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza then it will usher in a peaceful solution to the conflict. Given the current character of the Palestinian leadership there is little chance that would be the immediate outcome.

For a lasting peace, the Palestinian people need to liberate themselves not only from Israeli occupation but from their own corrupt and reactionary leaders and above all from the Islamist ideology that would condemn them to everlasting war and suffering.

That is a struggle that will be waged within Palestinian society and there is little or nothing that Israel can directly do to help bring about that transformation. But there seems no reason why Israel should wait for such changes before ending the occupation and I think, no reason why anyone on the European left shouldn’t be able to declare themselves ‘Pro-Palestine, Pro-Israel’.