The Zionist left in theory and practice
By Asa Winstanley, Palestine is Still the Issue, ceasefire magazine
Since its inception in the latter half of the 19th century, Zionism has always been a schizophrenic ideology. It is supposedly a secular nationalist movement: yet on establishment its offspring, the state of Israel, handed the Orthodox rabbinate sweeping powers over civil affairs. To this day, non-Jews are barred from marrying Jews in Israel.
A more frequently cited division in the Zionist movement is between its “left wing” and its right wing. But in reality this division is largely an illusion.
To the extent that they even think about Palestine/Israel, people in the West often hold out hope for change happening within Israeli society itself, and earnestly point to the existence of Israeli hippies, liberals and left-wingers.
In a recent tirade against “Palestinian right-winger[s]” and the “international left” for failing to support the ongoing tent protest movement in Israel (known as J14), the normally sharp Israeli blogger Yossi Gurvitz wondered “just what sort of a leftist spends so much energy on opposing a protest intended to bring about a social-democratic regime”.
With that quote in mind, I shall very briefly review the historical reality of what “social-democratic” Israeli regimes have meant for Palestinians (though not before mentioning that Max Blumenthal wrote an excellent reply to Gurvitz on his website).
The first phase of Zionist colonisation of Palestine occurred in the 19th century. That first wave came with vague dreams about “going back to the land” (a land these mostly European and Russian Jews had in reality never lived in, since most were descendent of converts to Judaism).
Upon arrival, they found the reality of agricultural life in Ottoman Palestine tough and, more often than not, ended up re-employing Palestinian fellahin. Many of them left for Europe or America. As Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has put it “They disappropriated the fellahin, but in most cases they did not fully dispossess them” (Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 100).
The second wave of Zionist colonisation of Palestine (1904-14) showed qualitative differences. The settlers were more firm in their Zionist ideology, and many claimed to be socialists, often those from Russia. They arrived with the new ideology of “Hebrew labour” and “redemption of the land” (i.e. from its Palestinian inhabitants). What this meant in practice is that the Palestinians were thrown off the land so the colonists would be free to embark on their experiments in “socialist” communal living. And so the first kibbutz was founded in 1910.
As I have outlined in detail elsewhere, one academic, sympathetic with Zionism, even argues in a book that some of these early settlers were influenced by anarchism (Asa Winstanley, “The Receiving End of our Dreams”, New Left Project, 7 October 2010).
In the 1930s David Hacohen was the director of the construction company owned by Histadrut, the Zionists’ racist “trade union” federation (only Jews were allowed as members). He later recalled arguing in favour of racial segregation during his student years in London, not long after the First World War. I quote him at length because it illustrates well the schizophrenic nature of the Zionist “left”:
“When I joined the socialist students – English, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, African… I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs into my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there… To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs they had bought; to praise to the skies to Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] that sent [Zionist Organisation agent Yehoshua] Hankin to Beirut to buy land from absentee effendis [landowners] and to throw the fellahin off the land… to do all that was not easy.” (David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, Nation Books, third edition 2003, p. 185.)
Artzi, one of the main kibbutz federations, nurtured the Palmach – the elite units of the Haganah militia, which were often based in kibbutzim. Both the Palmach and the rest of the Haganah were essentially the armed wing of leftist Zionism. And in 1947-8, both these “leftist” militias were massive perpetrators of war crimes as they ethnically cleansed Palestine of its native inhabitants – the Palestinian Nakba, or Catastrophe. You can read about this in Ilan Pappe’s book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited by right-wing Israeli historian Benny Morris.
So the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was done under the auspices the Zionist left. But so was the occupation of 1967. The Israeli aggression that led to the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 was initiated by a government dominated by the Zionist leftist parties – who indeed were a “social-democratic regime” for its Jewish citizens only.
The first illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank were not planted by the Likud but under Labour/Alignment governments. The Likud, traditionally understood as Israel’s right wing, did not reach government until 1977, but Israeli colonization of the Jordan Valley started soon after the conquest of the West Bank.
“Operation Grapes of Wrath”, the 1996 aggression on Lebanon was undertaken by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres. The Israeli minister of war in 2006 when Israel again embarked on a massive bombing campaign of Lebanon was Labour leader Amir Peretz – at one point held out as a great hope for “change”. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point.
Almost from its inception, Zionism has been a movement based on the premise of “transferring” the native population from Palestine. In this respect, it is little different from other settler-colonial movements. The fact that the gunmen killing and expelling Palestinians could later go home and vote in their kibbutz’s internal democracies makes no difference to the material facts of their violent colonial nature.
In fact there is much to the argument that such pretensions, beautifying Israel’s image in the West actually make the Zionist left more of a threat than the openly fascist Zionist right-wing (represented by people like Israel’s current foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman) because they are more easily able to rally international support.
For all these reasons, Gurvitz shows plenty of chutzpah in expecting Palestinians and their international supporters to rally to the cause of building an Israeli “social-democratic regime”. AsPalestinian poet Dina Omar has put it “The paradox of this new movement for social justice is that the organizers understand full well that as soon as they speak about the Palestinians (the people most abused by Israeli society’s power) popular support is sure to plummet. What does social justice even mean when it is divorced from the equation of social equality?”.
Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears in Ceasefire every other Saturday. His website is www.winstanleys.org