Any internationalist will undoubtedly share Andrew Northall’s desire (Solidarity 468, 2 May 2018) for federation and unity between the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, the two national peoples currently inhabiting historic Palestine.
But the only immediate answer to the day-to-day source of national oppression in the region, Israel’s colonial subjugation of the Palestinians, is an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
As a long-range aspiration, a secular, democratic, binational federation of Palestine, within a secular, democratic, multinational federation of the Middle East, is a noble one. But how to persuade the Palestinians, whose entire existence as a national people has been conditioned by the strangulation of their right to self-determination at the hands of a colonial oppressor, to give up their claim to statehood?
And how to persuade the Israeli Jews, whose existence as a national people is substantially the product of experiences of persecution and attempted genocide, and whose state was subject to an attempted war of conquest the moment it was born, to give up theirs?
Only a framework based on the mutual recognition of equal rights, including national rights, including the right to form an independent state, can lay the basis for future voluntary federation and unity.
Andrew writes: “What are the prospects of engaging with the majority Israeli working class, detaching them from the imperialist caste and class ruling them, and working with Palestinians and other Arab people to transform the current state into a genuinely democratic state for the region in which all peoples have guaranteed, individual, collective and national rights […] as happened for example in South Africa?”
On the basis of such radically misplaced analogies, the prospects are very slim indeed. What resulted in South Africa was not a state “in which all peoples have guaranteed […] national rights”: the white South Africans were not a national people but an ethno-cultural caste, whose state economy relied on the exploitation of the labour of the black majority. The political revolution against apartheid rightly smashed that state, replacing it with a democratic one.
The Israeli Jews are not a “caste”, but a fully class-differentiated national people according to any Marxist, or even basic sociological, definition of that term.
The black struggle against apartheid had many heroic white allies, but it was not forged on the basis of working-class unity between blacks and whites; while poor whites existed in apartheid South Africa, they were economically marginal. It was the organisation and self-assertion of black labour that toppled apartheid.
By contrast, in Israel/Palestine, as Andrew himself acknowledges, unity between the two working classes will be vital for any genuine progressive change in the region. How is that unity to be built if it first requires the working classes of both nations to accept that they cannot express their self-determination at the level of a state? If Andrew wants a settlement “in which all peoples have guaranteed […] national rights”, he must accept that this is likely to involve those national rights being expressed in the form of separate states.
Is a two-states settlement immediately likely, on the current balance of forces? Clearly not. But no genuinely democratic settlement of any kind is “likely” to emerge unless that balance of forces shifts.
To shift it requires a social movement within both Israel and the occupied territories that can unite Jewish and Arab workers around a common programme.
To imagine that this common programme could involve the demand that both groups immediately develop post-national consciousness is fancifully utopian and entirely without historical precedent. I would be delighted to be proved wrong, but this development seems distinctly less likely than the possibility that Israel might be forced, through a combination of internal social pressure and external diplomatic and economic pressure (such as arms embargos), to concede a viable Palestinian state.
From a distance, a politically-marginal revolutionary socialist left cannot do much more than attempt to understand the situation and proceed from basic principles: in this case, an opposition to national oppression and support for the right of national groups to self-determination.
In practical terms, our efforts are best directed towards making links and building solidarity with forces like the Workers’ Advice Centre, a radical trade-union centre organising both Jewish and Arab workers; and the Standing Together movement, a cross-party social movement of radicals, involving both Jews and Arabs, which organises to fight against the occupation and for social justice.
The immediate political programme of both these forces is for a two-states settlement. If, as they grow, the consciousness and desire for some kind of binational or post-national solution emerges, to the extent that this becomes a viable possibility, that will be a positive development.
But it is a development that will be far less likely to occur if the activists animating those movements take Andrew’s advice and insist in advance only on unitary or post-national settlements.
Ira Berkovic, Islington