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Israel, Palestine, Anti-Semitism and the US Left

Once the flagship of US Trotskyism, the US Socialist Workers Party is reduced to a rubber life raft of derailed sectarianism. The SWP was for decades a proponent of the liberation of the Palestinian people, but in recent years has changed to a position that can only be called a tragic adaptation to Zionism.

John Leslie

September 13, 2016
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Photo: Reuters

What is the new SWP position?

In a nutshell, the SWP position is that there is no Zionist movement ; Israel is no longer a colonial-settler state; and the Palestine solidarity movement, in particular the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and sections of the left are infected with anti-Semitism.

The SWP now supports the “right of return” and a two-state solution, having abandoned the demand for a democratic secular Palestine. An editorial in The Militant (8/25/14) states, “Under current conditions, a foundation for a way forward can only be built on an agreement that includes:

– Recognition of a Palestinian state, as it is today, as a stepping stone to fight for a single, viable geographical homeland for the Palestinian people.

– Recognition of Israel, as it is today, both a Jewish and increasingly multinational secular state.

This includes the right of return for the Jews, which will become increasingly relevant as the world crisis of capitalism kindles Jew hatred as a reactionary bludgeon against fighting labor.”

What was the old position?

From the 1971 SWP Resolution on Israel and the Arab Revolution:

“Israel is a settler-colonialist and expansionist capitalist state maintained principally by American imperialism, hostile to the surrounding Arab peoples.”

“It is an imperialist beachhead in the Arab world that serves as the spearhead of imperialism’s fight against the Arab revolution. We unconditionally support the struggles of the Arab peoples against the state of Israel.”

“The principal victims of the creation of Israel were the Palestinians–i.e., the Arabs who inhabited the region where Israel was established, who have been driven from their homes or placed in subjugation within Israel and the newly occupied territories. The Palestinians are a part of the Arab peoples, but they also form a distinct national grouping, with its own history of struggle against imperialism. There were Palestinian uprisings in 1921, 1929, and during the 1930s, reaching a high point in 1936-1939.”

We can also refer back to the work of Israeli socialists Machover and Orr, who wrote on the class nature of Israel :

“If the uniqueness of the Israeli working class consisted only in the fact that it was composed mainly of immigrants, then it could still be assumed that through time and patient socialist propaganda it would start to play an independent, possibly revolutionary, role. In such a situation, patient educational work would not differ much from similar work elsewhere.

“However, Israeli society is not merely a society of immigrants; it is one of settlers. This society, including its working class, was shaped through a process of colonization. This process, which has been going on for 80 years, was not carried out in a vacuum but in a country populated by another people. The permanent conflict between the settlers’ society and the indigenous, displaced Palestinian Arabs has never stopped and it has shaped the very structure of Israeli sociology, politics, and economics.”

In 2011, SWP leader Jack Barnes upheld the Party’s original position .

“What the Israeli rulers are seeking to impose in order to consolidate Israel within borders of their own choosing is not a ‘peace process,’ as it’s dubbed by liberals in the big-business media. It’s the consolidation of an Israel still based on the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian majority, together with the ‘right of return’ of those of Jewish parentage—and only those of such parentage. Its newly imposed borders will roughly correspond to the 400-mile-long wall the Israeli rulers are building inside the occupied West Bank, which lops off up to 10 percent of that occupied territory for Israel. What’s more, Tel Aviv intends to hold onto East Jerusalem and selected large suburban Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as strategic military locations along the Jordanian border.

There can and will be no long-term peace with the dispossessed Palestinian people on that basis. Or on any other basis that forcibly seeks to guarantee a permanent, large Jewish majority in Palestine. The Israeli rulers aren’t pulling back from their ‘right’ to demolish the family homes of Palestinians accused of bombings or other attacks, let alone their ‘obligation’ to ‘execute’ members and leaders of Palestinian organizations they hold responsible for ‘terrorism’” (emphasis mine).

Supporting the new SWP position requires someone to ignore some crucial facts. If there is no Zionist movement, how do we explain the Birthright trips organized by US Zionist groups, which reinforce the MYTH that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people? Why is it that Jewish people can fly to Israel and become citizens overnight and a Palestinian who was born there cannot return? Organizations exist to facilitate emigration to Israel, including direct recruitment to the Israeli military

How do we account for the continued existence of illegal settlements and the fact that more are planned? These settlements occupy militarily strategic high ground. Armed settlers, often from the US, harass and assault Palestinians. How do we explain the destruction of olive trees that are hundreds of years old?

Is Israel an apartheid state?

The analogy to apartheid* in South Africa is appropriate — preventative detention without trial, theft of land and ethnic cleansing, curtailment of freedom of movement, and the super-exploitation of labor. More than 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of Israel in the war that followed the founding of the State of Israel, the Nakba. Palestinian workers from the West Bank, who want to work in Israel, face discrimination, strict permitting processes, and lower pay than Israelis. Israel holds more than 6300 prisoners, many in preventative detention. More than 400 Palestinian children are held as “security prisoners.” Palestinians in the occupied territories are subject to military courts.** *http://itisapartheid.org/Documents_pdf_etc/outlineapartheidproofedbyc8.15.12.pdf

Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories drive on separate roads and cars have different colored license plates. Israeli settlers move freely and Palestinians still exist under a military occupation. Despite promises to discontinue settlement building, the Israeli state continues to build settlements that are for Jews only — no Palestinians allowed. Jewish people from anywhere in the world can go to Israel and become citizens and Palestinians, who were born there, are forced to remain in exile.

Some Israelis recognize the apartheid character of Israel:

Apartheid means fundamentalist clergy spearheading the deepening of segregation, inequality, supremacism, and subjugation.

Apartheid means Likud lawmaker and former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter calling Sunday for separate, segregated roads and highways for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.

Apartheid means hundreds of attacks by settlers targeting Palestinian property, livelihoods, and lives, without convictions, charges, or even suspects. Apartheid means uncounted Palestinians jailed without trial, shot dead without trial, shot dead in the back while fleeing and without just cause.

Apartheid means Israeli officials using the army, police, military courts, and draconian administrative detentions, not only to head off terrorism, but to curtail nearly every avenue of non-violent protest available to Palestinians.

Other Zionist sources reinforce the idea that Israel must remain a state exclusively for Jewish people:

“The government of Israel wants to maintain the demographic dominance of Jews in the country and keeps giving incentives to Jews all over the world for immigrating to the country.
The case is very much otherwise for the non-Jews. You shall need to apply for business immigration if you are really keen to moving into the ‘promised land’ for those who escaped from the horrors of Holocaust. Getting a job here is another way to answer your question on how to move to Israel. However, you shall be required to spend many years working in the country before you can become eligible for settling here permanently. Even after you become eligible, the laws of immigration are not as lax as in Canada or US.”

It’s clear that immigration by non-Jews is actively discouraged. Many Jews from other points in the Middle East who have been forced to leave their countries. That said, Israel has not been welcoming non-European Jews, Ethiopian and Middle Eastern Jews.

So what about the Israeli Arabs or Palestinian citizens of Israel?

Palestinian “citizens” of Israel face systematic discrimination in education, employment and at every level of Israeli society.

The law forbids the immigration of the Palestinian spouse from the occupied territories of an Israeli Jewish citizen to the State of Israel. Land ownership by Arabs is restricted.

Palestinian-Israelis are not conscripted into the Israeli military and few choose to serve. “There has also been little attempt to integrate Palestinian soldiers…segregation between Israel’s Palestinian and Jewish soldiers was strictly enforced until the 1970s, and is still the norm. In addition, the air force and elite combat units continue to exclude Palestinian soldiers.”

The military plays a central social, political, and economic role in Israeli society. All Jewish men and women are required to serve, with some exceptions for religious considerations and for married women. Israel’s military posture towards its neighbors has been hostile since the founding of Israel. Using the pretext of self-defense, the Israelis went to war in 1967, seizing and occupying the parts of historic Palestine not previously assimilated in 1948 as well as parts of Syria and Egypt. The Israeli military has historically acted as a proxy for US interests in the region and elsewhere. This includes selling arms to apartheid South Africa, providing arms and training to the Argentine Junta, and arming the murderous dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala. Former Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, referred to Israel as the “American aircraft carrier…that cannot be sunk.”

The “two-state” solution is a dead end, since the Israeli government has created the “facts on the ground” to ensure the non-viability of a Palestinian state, which would be relegated to less than 20 percent of the territory of historic Palestine. “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a press conference in Hebrew in which he stated that he would never accept Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank because Israel’s security needs are too great in an era of Islamic radicalism.”

Given the increasingly racist and reactionary character of Israeli society, the idea of equal rights within Israel is a pipe dream. The best solution is a democratic secular Palestine with equal rights for all. Promotion of a Palestinian “state” in the remaining parts of the occupied territories is acceptance of a Bantustan. The Israeli ruling class has never once negotiated in an honest way. Never once has an agreement been honored by the Israelis — and when Palestinians resist their own erasure, they are labeled the aggressor.

What is the character of the Palestine Solidarity Movement? How should we see BDS?

Is opposition to Zionism anti-Semitic? How has the Trotskyist movement traditionally approached this question?

The 1971 SWP resolution states:

“Our revolutionary socialist opposition to Zionism and the Israeli state has nothing in common with anti-Semitism, as the pro-Zionist propagandists maliciously and falsely assert. Anti-Semitism is anti-Jewish racism used to justify and reinforce oppression of the Jewish people. Marxists have been and remain the most militant and uncompromising fighters against anti-Semitism and the oppression of Jews.

The source of the oppression of the Jewish people in this era is the capitalist system, which in its period of decay carries all forms of racist oppression to the most barbarous extremes. This was horribly illustrated in the holocaust directed against the Jews of Europe by German imperialism under the Nazi regime. Today, anti-Semitism remains widespread in all of the Western imperialist countries. Until the capitalist system is abolished in these countries there is the ever-present danger that a new variety of virulent anti-Semitism can arise.”

Of course, it’s easy to quote a resolution from 1971. To be clear, we should recognize that anti-Semitic ideas are present in society and work their way into the context of the Palestine Solidarity Movement. An anti-semite holds stereotypes about Jewish people, and supports the oppression and even persecution of Jewish people. However, being against the actions of the Israeli state is not based on stereotype, nor is it in support of the oppression of Jewish people.
The idea that the entire movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people is somehow anti-Semitic is a dangerous political error.

That said, when backward and reactionary anti-Semitic thinking is present, do we abstain and label the whole movement anti-Semitic? Or do we challenge this thinking openly and help to root it out? Communists should provide leadership in these situations.

We can find some instruction in the way the SWP dealt with Malcolm X, who early on expressed extremely backward ideas about Jewish people. Did the Party just walk away? Or did they engage him on these questions? Early on, the SWP recognized the progressive core of Malcolm’s thinking – his opposition to racism and white supremacy, his emphasis on independence from the capitalist political parties, his support for self-determination and the right to self-defense. SWP members regularly sold the Militant newspaper at Malcolm’s speeches and he was a regular reader of the Party press. “…he came to the conclusion that capitalism is the cause of racism, that you can’t have capitalism without racism, and therefore socialism should seriously be considered as an objective by black Americans as well as by Africans and Asians and Latin Americans. At the very least, you can say that in his last year he became pro-socialist and anti-capitalist.” https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/breitman/1967/03/speech.htm

There are racists in the trade unions. Does this mean the labor movement is racist? Of course not. Yes, there are anti-Semites who infiltrate the Palestine solidarity movement. Does this mean the whole movement is anti-Semitic? It does if you support the SWP’s revision of their politics on the Palestine question. Now, according to the SWP, there is no such thing as Zionism and criticism of the Zionist project is code for anti-Semitism. This logic erases the Israeli state and its actions. Simply asserting that the Palestine solidarity movement is anti-Jewish doesn’t make it so.

And what about the manifestations of anti-Semitism that rear their heads in the movement? Communists do not shrink from struggle against backward ideas. Certainly, we stand up to racism and sexism in the unions. Part of revolutionary leadership is taking a strong stand against backward ideas wherever they present themselves. This means standing against manifestations of anti-Semitism in the movement.

We should also recognize the limitations of BDS. Some BDS activists present the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions tactic as “the” way apartheid in South Africa was brought down. This discounts the role played by the Black working class in South Africa, the mass democratic movement in the townships and the military defeat of the apartheid army by Cuban troops that invaded Angola.

The BDS tactic has made it possible for activists to expose the connections between Apartheid Israel and government entities, educational institutions and corporations. By threatening the base of financial support for the occupation, including settlement building, the BDS movement has undermined support for Israeli policy in US society and internationally. It is this threat to the legitimacy of the Israeli state that drives attempts to discredit the BDS movement.

Why does this matter?

In recent years the Palestine Solidarity movement has been the target of a series of attacks aimed at silencing the movement. One common charge leveled by pro-Israel organizations is that the movement is anti-Semitic. In a period where the Solidarity movement is under attack on campuses and in communities, it is imperative that we defend the right of the movement to organize and speak. By serving as a left cover for Zionist attacks, the SWP does itself, and the movement, a disservice.

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