Centrist Evasions on the Jewish Question and Palestine

A shortened version of the letter below was published in the Weekly Worker of 22nd Jan. Given the evasive response of Peter Manson, and the furious but even more evasive (and apolitical) response from Tony Greenstein in this week’s paper, I reproduce the original here. As people will see, it was radically cut, despite being solicited in this form by the editor of the paper himself. Which is of course the editor’s prerogative, in a way. Though one slightly unsavoury aspect of the way the paper is put together is that material is sometimes trimmed in a way as to blunt or distort their political content, and a ‘reply’ is then put together that exploits the problems caused by the editing.

Be that as it may, a reply will be sent to Manson’s evasiveness on the main point: the contradiction between claiming to stand for the Palestinian ‘right of return’, and the demand for the ‘right of self-determination’ of Israeli Jews, i.e. their right to maintain a state created by the exclusion of the Palestinian majority from their own country. It is not possible for even the most evasive centrist confusionists to do both in the real world.

This letter addresses two points from recent material in the Weekly Worker.

1) Tony Greenstein’s review of Shlomo Sand’s extended essay How I stopped being a Jew (8 Jan) is arrogant and ignorant. It accuses Sand of misunderstanding Zionism and Jewish identity.  But in asserting that there is ‘no Israeli citizenship’ for anyone who is not Jewish, Greenstein shows that he does not understand the basics of what Sand is attacking.  This notion must be news to the 20% minority of Palestinian-Israelis, who are citizens, use Israeli passports and vote in elections.

The actual situation of ‘nationalities’ in Israel is that in internal identity documents, citizens are divided into ‘nationalities’ by ethnic (and sometimes even arbitrary) criteria. They are designated either as ‘Jew’ or ‘Arab’, or in cases that do not fit, sometimes absurd ‘nationalities’ like ‘Buddhist’, or even ‘unknown’. These exist in order to prevent an ‘Israeli’ nationality emerging. As is well-known, Israel is designated as the state of the Jewish people everywhere, not just Israel.  Therefore a Jewish person born in London or New York, who has not claimed Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, has more rights than a non-Jew born in Israel.

That is key to Sand’s renouncing secular Jewish identity. That Greenstein can denounce him while not understanding basic facts about this, shows Sand is not the ignorant one.

Sand’s understanding of the empty and chauvinistic essence of the secular Jewish identity today, and therefore Zionism, is not academic, or based on involvement in the flawed, chauvinistic British left, but from brutal experience. As an IDF conscript in the 1967 war and the conquest of Jerusalem and the West Bank, Sand witnessed fellow soldiers torturing an elderly Palestinian man to death. Such initiations into Zionist barbarism are common to the most outspoken of Israel’s ex-Jewish critics. Gilad Atzmon witnessed Arab prisoners being kept in tiny concrete boxes exposed to the blazing sun while serving as a conscript in the IDF in Lebanon in 1982. As he noted in his book The Wandering Who, these would be cruel for dogs, let alone humans. Israel Shamir fought in the 1973 war, in which terrible atrocities were committed by the IDF.

Such things are the starting point for profound radicalisation, outside of the experience of the Western left, including purveyors of identity politics like Greenstein.

Greenstein admits that his original review (on his blog) of Sand’s essay smeared him, as earlier with Gilad Atzmon, as ‘anti-semitic’. But he found that more difficult, not least because Sand has a better understanding of the exact nature of Israeli misuse of the Nazi Genocide and its ‘Holocaust’ cult than Atzmon, as I discussed in my own review of Sand’s essay. What kind of arrogant person would attempt to ‘review’ a publication he had not read on the basis of reports in a liberal Zionist newspaper like Ha’aretz?

His point about Sand’s supposed duty to renounce his academic tenure is idiotic. Sand’s work in terms of demolishing  Zionism and ‘Jewish ideology’, in the words of Israel Shahak, is much more valuable to the Palestinian struggle than the popular front boycott campaigns Greenstein excels in promoting.

It is also incredible that someone can give even a short summary of the arguments in Sand’s earlier work, The Invention of the Jewish People, without mentioning the crucial issue of Khazaria and the origin of the East European Jews.

The ideological confusion that results from Israeli misuse of the Nazi Genocide as a propaganda weapon is the responsibility of the Israeli ruling class and no one else. Greenstein, in smearing critics of Jewish ideology like Sand and Atzmon, who may or may not (In Sand’s case not!) exhibit such ideological confusion merely makes this debate more difficult,  thereby helping Zionism demonise critics.

Greenstein admits that “Israel and Zionism” have “provided a new ideological basis for Jewish identity”, and furthermore admits that “most .. Jews … define their Jewishness in relation to Israel.” Yet, while declaiming in formally Marxist terms that therefore “there is no longer any objective, material basis to Jewish identity”, he contradicts this by smearing those who renounce this identity, even while he admits it is hollow.

Israel is an imperialist state, just as was apartheid South Africa (post-apartheid South Africa continues this in a modified form). These states have differences, but marked similarities in class nature. But unlike South Africa, imperialist Israel has a ‘foreign legion’: much of the Jewish part of the Western imperialist ruling classes specifically supports its fake-‘national’ project, and therefore its ruling class overlaps with that of the United States, as well as some of its junior imperialist partners. This gives rise to the phenomenon of the ‘tail wagging the dog’, as noted by observers from many political standpoints.

The “new” Jewish identity Greenstein admits is subscribed to by “most Jews” is an imperialist identity. The Jewish Ideology sharply critiqued originally by Israel Shahak is an imperialist ideology. Greenstein’s promoting of an ‘alternative’ Jewish identity, based around the old East European Yiddish version, would be harmless utopianism if he did not devote himself to smearing those who renounce this imperialist identity outright.

Billy Bragg’s advocacy of a ‘progressive’ alternative English identity is harmlessly eccentric, because he does not go around smearing those who think his idea is nonsense. If he did, this would make him a social imperialist. Greenstein should consider the implications of his own analysis, and his bad-mouthing of those renouncing imperialist ideology.

2) I am confused by Nick Tan’s argument in his response to me (Jan 15). The position I originally argued against had him advocating banning employers from employing immigrants who do not have permanent residency. Now he says that unskilled migrants should be encouraged to become skilled workers. Fine, but this has nothing to do with immigration controls as with Nick’s previous demand. It is also a fact that EU East European workers in general have the right to permanent residency or employment here, so his original suggestion would not impact them. It would however impact those on work permits from outside the EU.

Rather than targeting the employment rights of those with work permits, why not demand permanent labour rights for them also, with full union rights? That would defeat undercutting. His point about ‘labor imperialism’ assumes that the existing leaders of trade unions will be the agency for organising across national borders; if that is assumed, I’m not surprised comrade Tan is pessimistic. But surely socialists need to have the perspective of replacing this bureaucracy with a better, socialist leadership?

Meanwhile Peter Manson claims incredulity at my claim that the CPGB has an exception to its policy of ‘Open Borders’ for the Palestinians who have been violently excluded from their own homeland, and quotes a set of theses of the CPGB from 2011 on the ‘right to return’: “this is a right of habitation decided upon individually, or by family group” as supposedly refuting my contention.

What is the meaning of the phrase ‘decided upon’? Does this mean by the individuals or family groups concerned? If so, the phrase is superfluous: those involved in migration obviously should decide this for themselves. Obviously this phrase has another meaning.

If this is ‘decided upon’ by some third party, who ‘decides’ whether the return of specific ‘individuals ‘ or ‘family groups’ is compatible with “the right of the Israeli-Jewish nation to self-determination”, that is another matter. This implication is borne out by this sentence, which the ellipsis in Peter’s quote hides: “It is not a demand for a folk movement of the entire diaspora – which now inhabits not just Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, etc., but the US and many countries in western Europe too. “

So the right to return is qualified:  subordinated to Israeli-Jewish ‘national rights’. The Palestinians were not expelled as individuals or families, but collectively as a people. Logically this has to be the CPGB position, as the full right to return would mean that there would be an Palestinian Arab majority in Israel with the borders of 1948, making a Jewish state impossible. For any democrat, the right to return must be a collective right.

Abstractly, there could be no objection to the right of self-determination of the Israeli-Jewish population, even though they do not consider themselves a separate nation, if it could be done without infringing on the rights of others. But it cannot. Hal Draper, who the CPGB, along with the Alliance for Workers Liberty, almost revere, not just for his undeniable erudition on some matters of high-Marxist historiography, but also his third-campist politics, spelled this out particularly starkly.

In making it clear that he supported the ‘right to self-determination’ of the ‘Israeli-Jewish nation’, arguing against James P. Cannon’s US SWP’s assertion that Israeli Jews had no right to exercise self-determination at the expense of another people, Draper candidly wrote:

“A dishonest reply. (1) It means that the Jews have a right to self-determination but no right to exercise it. This does not make sense. One may, as we said, advise against its exercise in favor of a different course; but it is pure fakery to grant the right and in the same breath denounce its exercise as “conquest of another people’s territory.” (2) If the Jews have the right to self-determination, what territory can they “self-determine themselves” in without infringing upon the national rights of the Arab people? Is there any? Obviously none, it appears from the argument. “ (http://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1948/07/israel.htm)

Here we have the historical antecedent of the Jewish-chauvinist positions of the CPGB  and the AWL, in a nutshell. Israeli Jews have the right to self-determination, that is, to a separate, exclusivist state on ethnic lines, on land taken by force from the Arabs. The logic of this led, for instance, to the AWL-supporting-blog Shiraz Socialist to run an article in 2007 celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the foundation of Israel, in effect celebrating the Naqba. (http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2007/11/30/congratulations-israel/)

And it leads the CPGB to contradict its programme of free movement for the rest of humanity, in pursuit of Israel-Jewish rights that it does not defend anywhere else: the right to enjoy the fruit of ethnic cleansing.

For communists, while everyone who lives in the territory of historic Palestine has the right to continue to live there according to the basic rule of democracy: majority rule combined with democratic safeguards for minorities (including Jews, whether or not they speak Hebrew), there can be no right to an Israeli-Jewish state, based on the exclusion of the Palestinian people from even part of their homeland. That is incompatible with democracy.

Ian Donovan

Communist Explorations


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