A discussion article by Barry Finger, member of the editorial board of the US socialist journal New Politics (personal capacity). More debate on the right of return here.
"Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194: Since its violent establishment in 1948 through the ethnic cleansing of more than half of the indigenous people of Palestine, Israel has set out to control as much land and uproot as many Palestinians as it can. As a result of this systematic forced displacement, there are now more than 7.25 million Palestinian refugees. They are denied their right to return to their homes simply because they are not Jewish."
How many distortions and misdirections can be packed into one proposition and three sentences?
Let’s unravel this: UN resolution 194 “stipulates” a Palestinian “right of return.” Israel was established “violently” through the “ethnic cleansing” of “indigenous people” resulting in “7.25 million Palestinian refugees’.
It is surely safe to say that these unexamined propositions represent the overwhelming political framework around which the far left builds its politics. Each one of these contested points would require a separate essay.
A little background information first. UN Resolution 194 is a recommendation of the UN General Assembly, not a binding resolution of the Security Council. All the Arab nations rejected the resolution when it came up for a vote, because it included recognition of the State of Israel. More pertinently, the resolution only refers to a right of return for those “who wish to live at peace with their neighbours.” It therefore invites a political vetting process on the part of a state whose legitimacy no Arab nation at the time endorsed and with whose process no Arab state would have collaborated.
Moreover — and this refers to the BDS proposition, rather than the UN resolution, a refugee is one who directly experiences expulsion, not one generationally related to that experience. And the expulsion needs to be from one’s homeland, not from ones’ home. Being displaced 30 miles within the territory of Palestine does not make you a refugee. But without the right to self-determination, it does make you stateless, which is the immediate and pressing cause of Palestinian oppression.
Marxists have classically approached the national question from two broadly distinct perspectives. Marxist internationalists, at one end, tended to favour large multinational viable states as laying the capitalist predicate to a socialist order. At the Leninist pole, the national question is treated as a political contingency in the service of socialism; a question of examining the historical context of whether the separatist option temporarily serves as a necessary interim step before reunification under socialism.
The national question, and the divisions within the socialist movement arising from that question, originated not primarily from the decolonisation struggles of overseas holdings, but from the need for socialists to engage with nationalist movements that threatened the breakup of multinational European or peripherally European empires—Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Czarist. These incipient divisions over national viability were compounded to the breaking point by the struggles for a fundamental reorientation in the face of overseas decolonisation. The exercise of democratic rights to self-governance, as the Leninists argued, was a precondition for the development of class differentiation and working class socialism in the distant colonies.
For it is here - where the dimension of viability, both in its economic and political aspects, gets thorny. Neither revolutionaries nor reformists denied that capitalism both suffocated and developed the third world. But evaluations from on high of sustainability — in modern terms of whether such newly freed states would fail — became in practice a bad-faith excuse for the retention of colonies under “socialist” tutelage. The viability that reformist socialists were defending was primarily their own, which resided in the enlarged prospects of extracting capitalist concessions realisable by the extra layer of fat arising from colonial exploitation.
The one-state solution in all its inglorious aspects reached its prior crescendo in the historically discredited post-war response of Guy Mollet’s social-democrats aligned with the French Stalinists, to maintain Algeria, and all overseas territories, as part of the Union française. The PCF endorsed associated territorial status for Algeria with the ultimate aim of creating an Algerian republic enjoying internal autonomy.
The Israel-Palestine conflict, revisits and deepens all these difficulties. The one-state solution offered by Israeli right-wingers, including Netanyahu — with its suggestion of internal self-governance within a large metropolitan Israeli state — is largely a prescription for Palestinian bantustans. Its purpose is to maintain all of historic Palestine, while withholding or overwhelming and subordinating the conditions needed for Palestinian economic and political viability as an independent entity. It promises neither full civic nor national equality.
From the Israeli left and much of the international left, the single-state solution is a proposal for a supranational, rather than a binational, state. Failure to recognise this distinction has been the cause of much confusion. The single-state solution is a call for the fusion and dissolution of two nationalities; for not only the political, but also the social elimination of both the Hebrew/Israeli and Palestinian/Arab identities and its replacement with a new, previously nonexistent and unknown, nationality. This state may be bilingual, but it is not binational. It would be a federal state of its citizens—a state modelled on the US, rather than a confederal state, such as, Belgium or Yugoslavia or even Canada. It is a sanitised, revived call for a version of the secular, democratic state, where clerical hierarchies and discreet histories and scars of oppression, dhimmitude, and domination are wished away by a concerted leap of collective amnesia. It is a noble utopia.
But even this, in all its unreality, bears only superficial resemblance to that which the Palestinian nationalist and resistance movements have in mind. They understood, and still fashion their orientation, around a secular-democratic Arab state. That is, the Palestinian solidarity movement fancies itself not merely an anti-colonial movement, seeking to free the occupied territories and Gaza. It is a movement that foundationally sees Israel as an illegitimate, hijack, imperialist imposition—a crusader state. The only case for denying Israelis the right to self-determination is by denying that they are a nation.
That is not merely the viewpoint of Hamas, of the “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” crowd. The objective was restated clearly by Omar Barghouti, a founder of the BDS movement. “Bi-nationalism today, despite its variations, still upholds this ahistorical and morally untenable national right of the colonial-settlers.” Where the modern resistance movement of Barghouti differs from its previous incarnations and Hamas is in its expansiveness and its purported renunciation of violence. BDS no longer actively desires the expulsion of Israelis whose antecedents arrived after the Balfour Declaration. But it still envisions a future state in which Israeli-Jews only have equal civil, religious and political rights as individuals, but no rights to national self-expression as a collectivity.
According to the lies with which people justify themselves, the loss of sovereignty and the would-be vulnerability of Jews once again dependent on the tender mercies and good - will of their neighbours, involves nothing more substantial than the loss of their colonial privileges. That millennia of Jewish oppression, subjugation, powerlessness and slaughter — European and Middle Eastern — can be so simply and imperiously dismissed as unworthy of consideration reveals how insignificant the Jews are to the concerns of revolutionary movements.
It is high time the socialist movement came clean with itself. The Trotskyist movement (the American SWP) in particular took the lead in championing a novel theory in the early 1970s that took root throughout the far-left, that the right of the oppressed to determine the form of their liberation may include separation or unity with their oppressor under conditions by which they and they alone judges as necessary. The SWP then stretched this proposition in the most shocking direction: that the nationalism of the weaker nation in its struggle against the stronger may justifiably invalidate the latter’s claim to sovereignty itself, if those are the conditions the oppressed so choose. And it was the left’s internationalist obligation to defend that choice with unconditional solidarity. They thus buried any politics rooted in the pursuit of national reconciliation through a program of consistent democracy in an impenetrable haze of revanchism and irredentism.
What this denied should have been obvious. While the nationalism of the oppressed cannot be equated with the nationalism of the oppressor, the political aspirations of the oppressed and the politics that embodies those aspirations can still be inconsistent with a principled socialist position.
The secular democratic state of their imagination—the imagination of the Palestinian resistance — is an Arab chauvinist state, the chauvinism of the oppressed, in Lenin’s language, in all the same ways that a Zionist Israel, with a large Arab minority, is a Jewish chauvinist state, save one. Zionist two-staters recognise the Palestinian right to self-determination on territories exterior to the 1967 Israeli state. Palestinian nationalism accepts no such room for Israeli (Jewish) self-determination on any part of historic Palestine.
As Barghouti states elsewhere, “If the refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.” And it is as a Trojan horse that this demand for the “right to return” – to politically overwhelm the Jewish population and return Israel to the Arab fold--remains a non-negotiable aspect of the Palestinian solidarity movement in all its forms.
The left now defers to the consensus viewpoint of the Arab people — a people whose roots are in the Arabian peninsula, not the Levant — whose fourteen hundred year old conquest and colonisation of the Mashreq and Maghreb is seen as their manifest destiny, challenged by the upstart return of an indigenous and marginalised people to the land that gave birth to them as a nation, to their language and to their religion. From a Jewish nationalist perspective, it would be like accusing the Lakota or the Cherokee nations – if they were to seize back land stolen from them by Europeans—of being racists and colonialists for daring to challenge “American” sovereignty, of being “ethnic cleansers” if they were to eject those recruited to a genocidally-imbued war against their return and for being intransigent and non-repentant in their refusal to abandon their “facile” claim to nationhood. And, then the ultimate affront: for them and their supporters to be taunted, here and around the world, by left-wing jeers equating their nationalism to that of Andrew Jackson’s, and their expulsion of those who fought against their return as creating a new “trail of tears.”
Zionism, in contemporary terms, is not the “national liberation movement” of the Jews. The Jews were/are not oppressed as a colony, were not exploited as a captive nation, and did not they have their resources plundered to enrich a colonial overlord. Jews experienced their oppression in exile and dispersion as a racialised “other”: hated, hunted, slaughtered and finally driven back to Palestine, the only corner of the earth they could possibly retreat to. Zionism did not create Israel, history did. Zionism kicked the door open. And it is Israel — not Gaza, not the West Bank — that remains the largest refugee camp in the world. What Zionism prematurely invoked, and what it had the desperate right to invoke, was a form of Jewish nationalism based in indigenous rights theory, the very theory that Palestinians now so obliviously subvert to the frothy joy of their left-wing amen corner.
But even if there were no Jewish claim to indigenous status in Palestine — even if we remain uncommitted to whether world-wide Jewry constitutes a nation — there is inarguably a Hebrew-speaking, fully class differentiated people whose Jewishness is part of their national patrimony that exists in a portion of its contested homeland. For consistent democrats — for third camp socialists — and believers in national self-determination as a principal, that should be enough to settle the question as to whether Israel has a “right to exist.”
Either way, this does not mean that socialists need bow down before any movement or any peoples’ national rights. There are higher forms of human solidarity: ones that arise out of the quest for an equal application of democracy and justice among nations; those that are based on national reconciliation and class solidarity. Rational people, who once included socialists among their ranks, understand that the attainment of these higher democratic rights necessitate a reining in of nationalist maximalism, of isolating humanity from its poisonous extremes. No nation can exercise their right to self-determination beyond the point where it precludes another nation’s equal right to self-determination.
Zionism as an indigenous rights rationale for Jewish self-determination is defensible on democratic grounds, regardless of whether it is also a necessary justification for Israel’s existence. But the justification for self-determination and the arrangement of the state that embodies that right are two different propositions.
Pre ’67 Israel consists of two nations: a majority Jewish and minority Arab nation. A Jewish democratic state — even if it were honestly implemented (which it never was) would grant Arabs as individuals complete equality, but Arabs as a collectivity no comparable rights to self-expression. A democratic Jewish state is no more binational than the secular, democratic Arab state envisioned by Palestinians. It is of one and the same principal, with only the power axes reversed.
A revolutionary and democratic alternative is the socialist call for Hebrew and Arab self-determination within a de-Zionized Israeli state: to advocate, in other words, a state that grants Israeli Arabs an equitable distribution of state resources not only for its cultural and economic development, but also to implement their full right of secession with an independent and liberated Palestinian state in the occupied territories, if they so choose.
That is, our tradition has counterposed a non-Zionist binational Israel, not only to the Israel that exists today, but also to the liberal democratic Jewish state that today’s leftwing Zionists sincerely envision and desire. A Zionist Israel, even with robustly enforced anti-discriminatory protections that it now so sorely lacks, would, of course, be a welcome civilisational upgrade. But it would still be a Jewish chauvinist Israel.
Now is Israel the only state in the Middle East that practices national chauvinism? Let’s take the case of revolutionary Algeria. How did Algerian revolutionaries in power define citizenship? They granted citizenship only to Muslims; requiring that only those individuals whose father and paternal grandfather were Muslims could become citizens of the new state. Nationality by birth, rather that descent was not granted to children. By a stroke of the pen, it excluded Christians who, one might argue, had ties with France and other European nations and Jews, who preceded the Muslim and Arab conquests by centuries and had no prior association with any other state. Neither individual equality nor national equality was offered to Algerian and north African Jews. The difference between revolutionary Algeria and Zionist Israel? Algeria is considered a legitimate state and Hebrew self-determination in any form is considered a crime. And Algeria is the tip of the iceberg. Every Arab and Muslim majority nation withholds national rights to the minority populations within their midst—Kurds, Berbers, Syriacs, Copts, Assyrians, Yazidis. The non-Arab state of Iran subjugates a huge Ahwazi-Arab minority that it periodically slaughters, dispossesses and treats as an oppressed colony.
There is no part of the “Arab” and Muslim homeland writ large where minority nations have the slightest experience of being equal among equals. And the millions of Mizrahi Jews expelled or descended from expellees, who now constitute Israel’s majority are fully aware of that. As long as the Israeli left—revolutionary and moderate—are committed to peace predicated on some level of collective equality within historic Palestine, of decolonisation of the occupied territories and Gaza as a first step, consistent revolutionaries will have a platform upon which we can advocate a more robust multi-national movement to deepen and extend democracy.
Revolutionary politics consists in mobilising all the internationalist forces, minority nations, Israeli dissenters and Arab progressives, for the goal of achieving Palestinian statehood on as just terms as possible for a first step; and for broadening that struggle to revive the Arab Spring and liberate the Arab peoples and minority nations within its midst.
BDS, despite its militant character, practices the politics of delegitimation over solidarity; of isolation over dialog. It is the false start ally of chauvinism on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide.