The origins of the conflict

Submitted by AWL on 24 February, 2004 - 2:21

We side politically with the losers so far in the Arab-Jewish conflict, the Palestinian Arabs and their descendants. We support their struggle against intolerable conditions and Israeli occupation of the territories where they are the majority. We support the PLO aspiration to have an independent Palestinian state - where the Palestinian Arabs are a majority.
The Palestinians have our sympathy, and in general our support for their legitimate national demands. But then what? What do we say about Israel? How did it happen that in the middle of the 20th century a Jewish state reappeared after 2,000 years? From where did the ideologists of 'Zionism' suddenly derive such power over the minds of so many Jews, people of many classes scattered across many lands, as to induce hundreds of thousands of them to be pioneer settlers and workers in Palestine?

The story is often told as if this were a Zionist or an imperialist conspiracy. That is not history, but malign mythology. The real history is more complex.


Zionism, the project of creating a Jewish state, gripped Jewish minds because of the alarming growth of anti-semitism in the late 19th century. After 1881, there was the start of systematic pogroms in the Russian empire, including Poland, whence many of those who went to Palestine would come. In France, where the great revolution had long ago raised the Jews to equal citizenship, anti-semitism became a powerful rallying cry for the right. (And not only for the right. There was left anti-semitism too: what was well named as 'the socialism of the fools').

Everywhere there were stirrings of anti-semitism. Jews became the victims of the international plague of nationalism and chauvinism, and the widespread post-Darwin pseudo-scientific racist nationalism.

Zionism, initially a minority among Jews, gained force and strength from these events until, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the big majority of Jews were Zionists.

Real persecution, and the uneasy sense of mortal danger, gave Zionism much of its energy. There are recorded statements of astonishing accuracy predicting large-scale massacres of the Jews - by Chaim Weizmann in 1919, for example. During the Russian civil war, there were, two decades before the Holocaust, great massacres of Jews by the anti-Bolshevik armies in the Ukraine.

There had been, over the ages, a continued Jewish focus on Jerusalem - and always a small Jewish element in Palestine. The majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish in 1900, way before mass Zionist settlement.

The first Zionist congress met in Switzerland in 1897, and the first wave of modern Zionist settlement began in 1904. At that time, "Palestine did not exist as a distinct political entity. The territory which corresponded to this name was composed, roughly speaking, of the western provinces of the region which was traditionally known as 'Syria'... Until the beginning of the 20th century Palestine remained an obscure recess of the [decaying] Ottoman Empire, an underdeveloped and thinly populated country whose economy rested on fairly backward agriculture". (Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, p.51).

The Jewish population built up slowly. Inevitably, most of the early Jewish settlers 'looked down on' the Arab people of Palestine in the way that almost all Europeans, except a small minority of the revolutionary left, then tended to 'look down on' the peoples of Africa and Asia. In Europe, Marxists disputed with the Zionists, arguing that Jews should unite with non-Jewish workers in the countries where they lived, in order to fight for democracy and socialism, instead of opting out of the class struggle there.

But, in principle, the Marxists saw no reason why large numbers of Jews should not go to Palestine. It is not just Zionist myth that desert and swamp and uncultivated land made up the greater part of the areas settled by Jews. In 1895, only 10% of Palestine's land surface was under cultivation.

The gathering poison gas of Judaeo-phobia drove the Zionist enthusiasts of the first and second waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, from Tsarist Russia and Poland. In the mid 1920s, long before Hitler came to power, a great wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine came from Poland, a direct result of anti-Jewish measures taken by the regime there. Already, the alternative escape routes were closing. The USA had ended its open doors immigration policy in 1921.

What did the Communist International say about Jewish migration to Palestine?

When it was a communist movement, it did not oppose Jewish immigration into Palestine, though it did oppose the Zionist project and called on Jewish and Arab workers and farmers to unite and drive out the British rulers. It raised no alarms that if enough Jews went to Palestine they would eventually be the majority, or that the steady influx was greatly augmenting the Jewish national minority, with enormous implications for the future. The shift to 'Arabism' came only after the Communist International was thoroughly Stalinist, in 1929-30.

The next great wave of Jewish migration to Palestine, in the 1930s, was a direct response to Hitler. Even before the Holocaust, mass Zionism as an idea, and migration to Palestine as the best option in a world closing in on the Jews, were inextricably bound together as effect and cause.

Just before World War Two a shipload of Jewish refugees - the St Louis - sailed around the coasts of the Americas and, refused the right to unload its human cargo anywhere, had to go back to Europe. Most of those people perished.

On the eve of the Holocaust, Britain closed the ports of Palestine to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. It announced that Jewish immigration to Palestine would be cut to 15,000 a year and stop completely after five years.

Jewish 'boat-people' tried to get into Palestine illegally by crossing the sea in unseaworthy craft. If they got to Palestine they were refused the right to land, or interned. In 1942, one unseaworthy boat, the Struma, which was driven out from a Turkish port and refused the right to land in Palestine, sank, killing 768 people, including children.

Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. But, even in 1945, anti-semitic feeling did not hide its head for shame.

Tens of thousands of Jewish survivors of the death camps languished for years in Displaced Person Camps, some of them made-over former concentration camps.

In the USA, at about the same time that the cinema newsreels were showing pictures of the Nazi death camps, there was a spate of attacks on Jews and even on Jewish children in American city streets; in Minneapolis to take an example reported in the US Trotskyist press of that time.

Another example from the same source: asked in 1945 by the US Department of Education in a questionnaire what they thought of educational provision and training for their profession, the official association of US dentists made the formal and official reply: everything is fine except that there are too many Jews in the dental colleges.

Deported Jews returning to Poland met with pogroms and murder. In Paris, as the late Isaac Deutscher reported in the Observer, there were riots against Jews returning to reclaim property confiscated under the Nazi occupation.

In an opinion poll taken amongst Jewish Displaced Persons in camps in Europe the big majority gave Palestine as their first choice of refuge. They wanted to be with their own. After their experience since the 1930s, they couldn't trust strangers.


The Arabs of Palestine were naturally apprehensive about the influx of Jews. Britain heightened the tension. During World War 1, it simultaneously promised to sponsor a 'Jewish national home' in Palestine, and to support independence for the Arabs, who had been ruled by the moribund Ottoman Empire centred in Constantinople/ Istanbul.

After World War One, Britain and France divided up between them the former Arab territories of the Ottomans in the Middle East. France ruled Lebanon and Syria; Britain took Palestine and what is now Jordan and Iraq.

Ronald Storrs, British Military Governor of Jerusalem in 1917-21, talked of the Jewish colonists as creating a "little loyal Jewish Ulster" that would be England's outpost. Pretty quickly, however, Britain concluded that the little loyal Jewish Ulster was more trouble than it was worth. By 1930, after Arab riots and pogroms in 1929, the Labour minister Lord Passfield (Sydney Webb), with the initial backing of Prime Minister J R MacDonald, was trying to kill off the idea of the Jewish National Home.

Three hundred and forty one thousand Jews migrated to Palestine between 1922 and 1945. They set about building a largely self-contained Jewish economy and society there. Forty thousand Arabs also migrated into Palestine between 1922 and 1945, drawn there from the surrounding territories as a result of the increased economic life attendant on the Zionist colonisation.

From the start Arabs resented the fact that Britain had cheated them on its promises of support for Arab independence, and designated Palestine as a Jewish national home. Conflict between Arabs and Jews also erupted for cultural and religious reasons. There were major elements in this of Arab landlords and clerics rousing the backward countryside against the urban, heretical Jews. The Arab reaction was highly understandable; but does it mean that socialists should damn the growing Jewish national minority in Palestine, who were in the grip of their own nationalist egotism, for not bowing down to Arab or Muslim national, cultural or religious egotism?

The communal/national conflict gave a great emotional charge to evictions of Arab peasants consequent on Jewish purchases of land.

According to a prominent anti-Zionist: "When the question of the acquisition of land by the Zionist organisations in Palestine is broached, it is usually not stated that these land transactions are to be explained by the big Arab landowners' eagerness to sell their property. These purchases led to an extremely lucrative wave of property speculation. The Zionists certainly paid dearly for their Holy Land. The high-prices sales, which brought a fortune to the usurious, parasitic effendi class, proved disastrous for the fellahin [peasants] who were expelled from the estates they had worked on. Whilst in public the [Arab] leaders stepped up their incendiary attacks on Zionism, denouncing any transfer of ancestral soil to the Jews as a betrayal, they secretly enriched themselves by means of the very operations they so furiously attacked. The fanatical braggadocio was designed for the gallery… hyper-nationalist propaganda became a lucrative industry, indeed even an American-style racket, for the Arab gentry". (Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, p.161-2).

By 1948 about six per cent of the land of Palestine, and 12% of the cultivated land, was Jewish-owned. Arab agriculture had expanded alongside, though not as fast as, Jewish agriculture. Arab peasants were evicted after Zionist land purchases, but in fact the numbers were smaller than those of peasant evictions in some other countries driven by the 'normal' cruelties of capitalist market forces. According to Benny Morris, "several thousand families were displaced following land sales to Jews between the 1880s and the late 1930s" (Righteous Victims, p.123). More families were evicted by landlords in Ireland in any single year, of a number of years around 1848 and around 1880 - 104,000 people evicted in 1850 alone, for example - than as a result of Jewish land purchases in Palestine over that whole half-century before 1948.

There was an Arab uprising in 1936-8, demanding an end to Jewish immigration, a ban on the sale of land to Jews, and a pledge by Britain to introduce a government representing the Arab majority in Palestine.

Britain first responded by coming out for Partition (1937). The Zionists supported partition, but Britain then retreated from it under Arab pressure. In 1939 Britain turned sharply against the Jews, banning almost all Jewish immigration and almost all further land sales to Jews. This was on the eve of the Holocaust. The strategists of the British feared an Arab-Nazi alliance in which Germany would use the Arabs against Britain as Britain had used the Arabs against the Turks in World War One. Until it withdrew from Palestine in 1948, Britain maintained a hostile stance towards the Jews - and, in its relentless war against Jewish refugees trying to enter the country, a savagely vindictive one.

In the 1940s some Jewish factions supported the idea of a bi-national state as the alternative to partition. That, however, presupposed a mass willingness to dissolve existing national identities which did not exist on either side.

By then there were 600,000 Jews in Palestine, about one in three of the population. Why, from a socialist and consistently-democratic point of view - as distinct from an Arab-chauvinist one - did they not have national rights?

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