Debate: retreating up a ladder

Submitted by AWL on 1 May, 2019 - 11:56 Author: Sean Matgamna
Right of return

This is a reply to Daniel Randall’s polemic in Solidarity 498 against my article in Solidarity 497. More debate on the right of return here.

A story. A man begins to think his partner has another lover. He asks her and is told: “Of course not! That’s ridiculous!”

He doesn’t want to believe it. But he can’t get rid of the idea.

So, scandalously, he takes to following his partner around. He sees her meet someone. They greet each other affectionately, and afterwards he sees them impatiently kiss and grope each other. They go to a flat and to a bedroom. He spies on them with binoculars, through a window. They begin to undress. Then one of them remembers to draw the curtain, and he can no longer see.

“Bugger it”, he mutters in frustration. “I still can’t be sure. It’s still not a matter of blinding obviousness”.

It is not of “blindingly obviousness” that the “right of return” to what is now Israel of six million descendants of 1947-9 refugees is code for eliminating Israel?

You say that my argument “functions to obliterate distinctions” within support of the formula “right of return”.

What distinction subtracts from the meaning of “return” to possess Israel by six million people? No such distinction!

There are surely distinctions of motive and intention among “return” advocates. I didn’t say that they are racists, not in any ordinary sense. I focused not on the subjective drives of advocates of “return”, but on what the program means in the real world.

“The distinctions and gradations” in the programme are not, as Daniel claims, “many”. No distinction of motive and drive has any necessary bearing on what “return” of six million people means in reality, outside the heads of the advocates. You conflate the objective meaning of “return” and the different subjective motives of those who advocate it.

You say you reject “a ‘right of return’ policy that presumes the collective resettlement of five to six million Palestinian refugees and their descendants”. Oh, that “right of return” policy! Is there another one?

Stated plainly, “right of return” is a right in principle to “repossess” Israel for up to six million people, only a small fraction of whom are actually 1947-9 refugees from what is now Israel.

Whatever a given advocate of “right of return” intends, the idea acts to delegitimise Israel and legitimise those who want to destroy it.

What else is advocacy of “return” of second, third, fourth… generation descendants of refugees, a total two-thirds the size of the population of Israel now, including Israeli Arabs — if not advocacy of the displacement of the Israeli Jews?

“Right of return” is in reality another way of saying “destroy Israel”. And by force. It would have to be. To deprive the Hebrew nation of the right to exist in territory of its own could only be done by war, conquest, and massacre.

That is not of “blindingly obviousness” to some advocates of the “right of return”? Then we need to enlighten them. The “return” people who do not mean it literally help give bulk and weight to those who do.

You sum us up as rejecting “a ‘right of return’ policy… via the displacement of the contemporary Israeli-Jewish population if necessary”. Where do you get the “if necessary” from? There is another sort of “return” of six million people that does not mean that displacement? Or you want to keep mental reservations which allow you to question definite statements like mine in Solidarity 497?

Advocates of “right of return” are not only those “who got their political training on a 1970s and 80s far left”. A lot of them are younger people, poisoned politically. And then you think the best way to combat the actual idea, the literal programme, is to dissolve it into a series of distinctions based not on different actual meanings, but on different subjective motives (including plain ignorance) and different understandings of what it means?

We should not point out, plainly and insistently, what it literally means? We do not say just how wrong it is for someone who does not support displacing the Israeli Jews to hold to the formula, accept it passively, or tolerate it peacefully?

Here, Daniel, you go from little bits of reserved judgement and fudges of meaning to defending and championing (by “explaining”) some of the advocates of “return”.

The subjective displaces the objective. We must “patiently tease out” the different understandings of the slogan, and pull back from summing up plainly what the slogan means.

Obviously when we talk with people, we take account of their specific angles and what the slogan means to them. You counterpose that to saying what is. I don’t; you do.

A proper summary statement of what the “right of return” slogan is — that is “moralistic denunciation”? That implies a denunciation which is unjustified, or too smug, or emotionally self-serving. So: it is wrong to be outraged at the advocacy of the destruction of Israel? Do you not sometimes feel “moralistic” anger over that? Or don’t you? Is that the point?

Daniel, here you soften the contradictions between what we say and what the kitsch left and those duped by it say by toning down what we say or destructuring and qualifying it almost out of existence.

A statement like mine that Israel “often” tramples on Palestinian rights, you say, is inadequate. You write: “It is less a question of ‘often’, more one of ‘always’.”

As if I haven’t said that Israel is consistently blocking the Palestinians’ right to a state of their own! The point here is, what follows from your way of putting it?

You write as if the mortal hostility to Israel and its right to exist may be just, or not unreasonable, or no less than Israel’s misdeeds merit.

You seem to indicate that the things about Israel and its behaviour which we criticise justify those who back “right of return”, the destruction of Israel, and the incorporation of the Jews who survive the necessary conquest and massacre as a minority into an Arab state. No, Daniel. Israel’s misdeeds do not license the proposition that the Jewish state must be destroyed. They point to what we advocate: two states, and the “normalisation” by the Arab states of relations with Israel.

Why the impulse to moderate what we say? The wish to soften things by explaining that the “revanchist” slogans are just outrage at Israel’s “barbarism”?

Here you seem to be looking for a softening of the conflict between us and all the advocates of “return” and displacement. Daniel, we are politically at war with all the advocates of the destruction of Israel, whatever the manner or “code” through which they express that idea, “right of return” included. Short of us hiding our full politics, there is no way of softening that contradiction.

Beating about the bush, havering, mental reservations, identifying against my “moralistic denunciations” with those who from outrage against Israel adopt revanchist attitudes — none of that is Marxist politics.

We have to say what is. Then, after that, we think of ways of influencing individuals by taking their motives as a starting point.

For Hamas, you write, the “right of return” means “not conceding a single inch of the land of Palestine”. But then you say we must remember that for others “it simply expresses a desire to live in the… place where their families are from and from where they fled or were driven out”.

Here you describe what the “right of return” means, you think, to “others” than Hamas. But the second category is usually the raw material for use by Hamas and others.

You inflate the importance of vague psychology, and try to exclude the hard political reality of what “right of return” means.

“Right of return” is not just a welling-up of vague nostalgia rooted in current misery (and the misery of the Palestinians is not just the responsibility of Israel).

And “return” is not something young people arrive at spontaneously, to express their indignation: it has been propagandised for by Hamas, by Arab states, and by the kitsch left.

“Romantic” attachment to the “right of return”, you write, is only likely to break up when there is “a sizeable movement amongst both Israeli Jews and Palestinians for… both peoples… equal right to their own state”. Again, you are dissolving and fudging the problem, remitting it into some desirable future. Again, you substitute psychological speculation for hard-edge politics. You make opposition to the “right of return” depend on big future changes.

Meanwhile the “right of return” — demanding the destruction of Israel and the displacement of its Jewish population — and all that goes with it is a barrier to any Jewish-Arab common movement.

I made no suggestion that the Palestinians are “aspirant agents of genocide”. To think of them as such, you continue, “can only serve to drive them into the arms, and strengthen the hand, of the revanchists such as Hamas”.

That is something in the future tense? What are you trying to say? To point out the logic and implications of the “right of return” — that it implies displacement — can only serve to make it come true?

You say plainly that we can’t hope to eliminate advocacy of the right of return, and the left antisemitism that goes with it, before there exists a strong Israeli-Jewish movement for the Palestinians. Isn’t that a little too much like the writer in the Morning Star who said antisemitism would only stop when Israel stops ill-treating the Palestinians?

Why exactly do you bring in the general upsurge of old-style antisemitism? Many older forms of antisemitism are indeed being revived. Much of the subsoil of society is poisoned by antisemitism. The internet is a cesspool of it. And elements of older antisemitism exist among left-wing antisemites concerned with Israel-Palestine.

In fact, as in your whole article, once again you misrepresent reality and fudge, to take the edge off our confrontation with left antisemitism. You write that I “underplay” the problem by focusing on left-wing antisemitism and what is peculiar to it.

What you do there — now clothed in virtuous concern with the broader societal antisemitism — is soften the hard edges where we are in conflict with our immediate political world, the rest of the left.

You say that more general “vicarious-Arab-nationalist or vicarious Islamist ‘drive the Jews into the sea’ type cheerleading for Hamas”, and the left’s refusal to differentiate from it, is less “toxic” than the older, broader, vaguer antisemitism which the left does differentiate from and repudiate.

You see the vaguer general antisemitism as more important than the left-wing antisemitism geared around Israel. And easier to combat.

You end with a smug advocacy of education against all antisemitism. Yes, Daniel. But also no, Daniel!

It is the antisemitism of the left that we primarily encounter and have to confront. That is what my open letter to Jeremy Corbyn was concerned with.

We can’t shy away from confronting that left antisemitism. We can’t slip into dissolving awareness of it, and step back from making others aware of it, by focusing on the possible good motives involved, or by saying that we should instead focus on the older forms of antisemitism.

But that, I think, is the whole thrust of what you write. In sum, you suggest someone who wants to soften our conflict with the antisemitic ostensible-left, and to explain away “right of return” as an understandable response to Israeli “barbarism”.

You retreat from our specific problems into generalities, run up the ladder of generalities away from the kitsch-left dog barking at our heels.

That, Daniel, is not good Bolshevism. It’s not even good consistent liberalism.


Submitted by Ted Alleyne (not verified) on Fri, 03/05/2019 - 00:20

Surely the basic error made here is to interpret the 'Right of Return' for Palestinians as six million people migrating en masse to Israel. In reality, the probability is that only a minority would want to go, particularly if they are also offered full citizenship rights in the countries where they presently reside as part of a wider negotiated settlement, and financial compensation. The example of ethnic Germans displaced from Eastern Europe after WW2 was referred to in Sean's earlier article. In fact those ethnic German families do now have the right to return to their former countries under EU freedom of movement rules. How many of them have gone? Gush Shalom certainly don't take the view that the right of return necessarily means the destruction of Israel.

By constantly painting the "return" slogan in its most extreme form, Sean is shutting down debate and needlessly alienating masses of the wider left who rightly sympathise primarily with the Palestinians (it's notable that Daniel, who does actually have daily contact with that wider left, takes a more nuanced stance). It also makes for quite a bizarre exception to the "open borders" position the AWL takes in respect of every other nation state on the planet.

Furthermore, even advocacy of a binational state is not inherently antisemitic, no matter how utopian it appears at the present time. Like a united Ireland, we would surely welcome such a thing if both parties came to accept it, presumably on the basis of working class unity.

Breaking the left away from identifying with the clerical-fascist politics of Hamas is a sensible aim. Caricaturing the right of return rather than engaging with the idea and establishing how it could usefully be interpreted in practice does nothing to help with that project and simply drives the uncommitted further in that direction.

Finally, if Netanyahu and Trump persist with their annexation plans, at some point a two state solution is no longer going to be viable. That point must surely be fast approaching. The two states left would need at that point to decide how to proceed. Equal democratic rights for everyone between the Jordan and the Med in a single state would then be an unanswerable demand.

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