In the mid-1980s, Socialist Organiser, a forerunner of Solidarity, ran a long debate - discussion articles, letters, rejoinders, from a wide variety of views - on Israel-Palestine.
One of the contributions then was from Lenni Brenner, author of two books very influential on the "absolute anti-Zionist" left (Zionism in the Age of the Dictators and The Iron Wall). The following reply to it by Sean Matgamna was written at the time but never published, except in a small-circulation pamphlet collecting the debate with unpublished additions.
The welter of empty phrasemongering and senseless ultra-left sloganising in which Brenner's Socialist Organiser contribution indulges has so little grip on reality that you are naturally inclined just to shrug and get on with the real discussion of the real issues.
To unravel the tangled skein of weasel words, good aspirations, slogans, double standards and empty phrases promises to be both tedious and difficult, and also pointless. Yet it isn't pointless.
Brenner's two books on Zionism, and Jimmy Allen's use of Brenner's work as part of the basis for his notorious play Perdition have given Brenner a certain prominence in the discussion on the Middle East. And his incoherent sloganising in Socialist Organiser does, if you look at it closely, show up the school of thought of which he is so vociferous a representative.
The ideals of internationalism are essential to socialism. It must therefore go without saying that socialists are against Israeli nationalism, and that we condemn Jewish chauvinism and all its manifestations. So far, so good.
But Israeli nationalism does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a network of interlocking nationalisms and national antagonisms. It is confronted by Arab nationalist chauvinisms which have taken as their goal the destruction of the Israeli state and nation. Any fair account of Israeli nationalism would therefore put it in its framework. The demurrals and condemnations would take account of the counter-nationalisms and condemn them also.
Not so with Brenner. He is scathing about the PLO. But where he concludes from his strictures on Israeli nationalism and chauvinism that therefore the national organism itself does not have a right to exist, he makes no such conclusions for Arab or Palestinian nationalism.
The "internationalism" is unequal and false because in practice the condemnation of Israel that flows for Brenner from his internationalist credo is absolute and mortal: the condemnation of the Arabs is a moral stricture only. and a series of admonitions. Brenner does not make his support for the Arab (or Palestinian) side conditional on them not being nationalists or chauvinists. They are the legitimate nation. The Jewish is the illegitimate nation. One lot of nationalists have positive rights, the other the right only to surrender and submit.
The PLO's old commitment to a "secular, democratic Palestine" is here used as a mechanism for having double standards. Brenner accepts the disguise of one of the competing nationalisms, a disguised and mystified version of its chauvinist demands. His internationalism is thereafter a club to bludgeon a way clear for Arab nationalism.
Human equality, legal. economic and social, is at stake", writes Brenner. "The slightest accommodation to Jewish chauvinism in Palestine will, inexorably. lead to similar capitulations in principle to communalism in other parts of the world".
"Human equality" does not exist between states and peoples. We want it to. How do we proceed? Bv advocating
that all state boundaries and citizenships be dissolved, and all nations and nation-states abolished? No: we advocate the right or nations to self-determination, hoping on that basis to make the dissolution of national frontiers possible after a long period of reconciliation.
lf all we can do in the face of the existing nationalisms and chauvinisms, with their deep material roots, is to preach internationalism and call for people to rise above national concerns, then our struggle is hopeless. In fact we do not pretend that it is possible to dissolve national distinctions immediately. or even after a socialist revolution. On the contrary. Why did the Bolsheviks have a pro gramme on the national question for the USSR after the 1917 Revolution?
We have both a democratic and a socialist programme. We do not pretend rationalistically that national identity is a misunderstanding that can easily be dispelled. We ignore neither national oppression nor the fears of it.
Neither does Brenner. But he has a double approach. Towards the Israeli Jews he is a dogmatic, rationalistic internationalist, offering internationalism or nothing. Towards the Arabs he loses this rigidity, and becomes an enthusiastic advocate of the rights of oppressed nations. In effect his programme is Arab nationalism.
In Brenner's historical writings, the trick is to blame the Zionist movement - presented as some sort of diabolical power outside the ordinary Jewish people – for the Holocaust, as if the Zionists in Europe did not go to the death camps too. The argument ranges from the possibly reasonable point that if the Zionist movement had devoted all its energies to opening the doors of the USA, then that might have made a difference, all the way to the libellous nonsense that "the Zionists" would rather have the European Jews dead than have them go anywhere but Palestine.
The latter claim is backed up by grossly unfair use of quotations like a 1938 comment by Ben Gurion that humanitarian work for refugees must take second place to building the Jewish state in Palestine.
Ben Gurion was not talking about the Holocaust. He was a hard-headed politician convinced that there was only one real solution to antisemitism, and fighting for that. It is possible to disagree with Ben Gurion's objective, or condemn it outright — but you have to tell the most scandalous lies to pretend that Ben Gurion was condoning the Holocaust in advance.
In 1938 the Zionist Ieaders still saw events under Hitler in the framework of the worst previous Judaeophobia. They probably could not imagine what was to come, and in any case they can't possibly have know what was to come. Which Zionists would, with clear foreknowledge, have
chosen the Palestine colony at the cost of six million dead? None of them did, and none of them saw the issue that way.
Brenner is effectively saying of Hitler's victims: "It was their fault, or at least the fault of their leaders. And, look, the Zionists (this time the entire Israeli Jewish nation, not only the Zionist leaders) are still pursuing the perverse racist doctrine which helped bring the Nazi catastrophe down on their heads. This can only be brought to a proper end if they consent to dissolve the Israeli Jewish nation or, failing that, they are overwhelmed".
This political programme, which implies the bloody subjugation or destruction of an entire nation. is dressed up and presented in terms of anti-nationalism and anti-racism.
Instead of arguing for Jewish-Arab working-class unity on the basis of an agreed democratic solution. Brenner relies on ultra-left fantasies, in which he talks vaguely about "permanent revolution" and an Arab conquest of Israel merging into or triggering the socialist revolution. While in fact what is proposed is just the conquest and destruction
of one nation by another.
One of the things that makes this most disgusting is the way Brenner and others sift through some or the most terrible events of which we have detailed records looking for cheap political dirt. Did Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in the late '30s ruminate out loud about the probable rate of the older layers of the Jewish population who remained in Germany and had little prospect of being able to make a new beginning in Palestine, saying that they would "perish like dust"? It seems he did.
Well then, grab hold of it and present it as if he was talking with full foreknowledge of the fate of the German Jews, and blame the kith and kin of the victims for the horrors!
None of this is serious history, and it is indecent politics, It is either dirty propaganda, or else it is hysterical "factionalism" against Brenner's Zionist opponents within the Jewish community.
The memory of Hitler's massacre of the Jews acted for a long time as a bulwark against antisemitism, forcing it underground. Even today, in most circles, it dare not bear its own name. It disguises itself.
The attempt to put part of the blame for the Holocaust on Jews does more than attempt to discredit Israel and to buttress the Arab chauvinist case that it has no right to exist in any form. It breaks down that bulwark against anti semitism.
On the left, Zionist complicity in the Holocaust is now increasingly an article of faith in a movement which has adopted an attitude of comprehensive hostility to Jews, in Israel and outside it, who will not "convert" to anti-Zionism and adopt the demand that Israel cease to exist.
There are striking parallels. "Holocaust Revisionists" of history say that the Jews didn't die in Hitler's death factories at all. The "blame Zionists" revisionists say: yes, they did, but they died partly because of the machinations of their leaders whose successors now rule Israel.
A candid antisemitism, indifferent to the massacre, might say: the Jews got what they deserved. The left "anti-Zionists" say: they got what their leaders decreed, or at least connived at. The different versions are, of course, not identical, least of all in their motives; but the parallel exists independently of anyone's good intentions.
Brenner's basic thesis presents the issues in terms of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy ("Zionism") – with the assumption that even when the Jews were being massacred in Central and Eastern Europe, the world-wide Zionist movement was still powerful enough to decide whether or not every other door would be closed to the Jews.
Logically you cannot separate this "Zionist conspiracy" view of reality from the Jewish conspiracy thesis of Hitler and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And many people who believe Brenner will not have the inhibitions of his Trotskyist and leftist dogmatism, and will make their own way "back".
That is one basic reason why the whole left "anti-Zionist" campaign against the Jews - yes, against the Jews - is part of a cultural ferment that can lead to full-fledged persecution of Jews.