No Joint Struggle With Settler Colonialism
New Politics editor’s note: brian bean, co-editor of the anthology Palestine: A Socialist Introduction, responds to Daniel Fischer’s “In Support of Joint Struggle.” Both articles refer to the anthology’s chapter “Not an Ally” by Daphna Thier. A summary of this and other chapters can be found in Steve Leigh’s review.
For Marx, the working class was the revolutionary class, the only class for whose self-liberation would mean the liberation of all. In Daphna Thier’s chapter “Not An Ally” she argues that the Israeli working class is an exception to this rule. The reason for this is that the class character reflects the settler colonial nature of the Zionist state. The very class formation of the Israeli working class came with the ethnic cleansing and forced appropriation of Palestinian land and replacing Palestinian society with Israeli one. Zionist labor and labor parties both were essential actors and thus guilty parties. This Zionist welfare state served as the cocoon that gave birth to Israeli capitalism. She argues that Israeli workers are bestowed direct benefits at the expense of Palestinians and that a political economy constructed around the continued war and occupation of the Palestinians has more integrated the Israeli working class into the Zionist project. The result of this is that class struggle against Israeli capital is subordinated to the struggle for the Zionist national project. Deeper than the false consciousness of nationalism which exists as a strain within workers generally, Zionist settle-colonialism shapes the class character to prevent class solidarity with Palestinians.
Therefore, the Israeli working class is a settler-colonial, active collaborator with Israeli capitalism in the continued ethnic cleansing and occupation project of Israeli apartheid. Despite the actions of some individuals of conscience, the class character and relationship to the state means that as a class Israeli workers are not allies in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, for democratic rights for all, and for the right of return for the generations of Palestinian forced into the diaspora. This is an unfortunate reality that we wish were different. However, it is folly to base our political strategy on this wish. Unfortunately, Daniel Fischer asks us to make that very mistake in his criticism of Thier’s argument in the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction edited by Sumaya Awad and myself. (He also singles out Steve Leigh for a favorable review of our book, whose company I am happy to share.)
Fischer’s main assertion is that we discount the “revolutionary potential” of the Israeli working class and he argues that rather than being incentivized to support Zionism, Zionism is antithetical to the self-interest of Israeli workers and that it is only “false consciousness” that it is supported by the near totality of Israeli Jews. Zionism—according to Fischer—has made Israel “hell for Jews.” He argues that changing this and winning a shared country will come about with “joint mass struggle from below, cemented by common national-revolutionary aims and common social interests” between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
In making his argument he relies on one of the writings of American socialist Hal Draper arguing the majority position of the American Trotskyist organization the Workers Party / International Socialist League. In doing so he resuscitates a doctrinaire debate in the international Trotskyist movement from mid-20th century. The majority position of the WP/ISL in this debate was quite mistaken in its approach to Israel. On this ground, he makes a series of cases of struggle by Israeli Jews that are overblown—sometimes with misleading sources—and confuses activity against the excesses of the occupation or “for peace” with that of a clear anti-Zionist position. He makes some of the same mistakes that Draper and company made about the nature of the Israeli state and colonialism—mistakes our new socialist movement needs to reject. In the rest of this essay I will go through each of these in turn.
Out of Joint
On this shaky theoretical ground, Fischer makes his case by citing the existence of sporadic protests in Israel carried out by the Israeli peace movement against things like the apartheid wall and annexation, the existence of Israeli military resisters, and the Israeli Black Panther movement of the early 1970s. In many of these examples Fischer dramatically overstates the breadth or effect of these small struggles on Israeli society. He downplays what Awad and Thier emphasize in their excellent recent Jacobin piece; that the existence of Zionism prevents solidarity, and the settler-colonialism is the underlying obstacle not just—and most importantly—for ending the suffering of Palestinians, but to create the condition for the growth of any sort of internationalism among the Israeli working class.
We don’t deny that there exists a small peace movement in Israel that protests the more egregious “overreaches” of Zionist occupation. This activity is welcome and positive. But the Israeli peace movement has not only been marginal in Israeli politics, and Israeli politics on the level of working class organizations and political parties has lurched rightward. This is an obvious point and the Israeli elections last month are more proof. Additionally, as Awad and Thier point out in their Jacobin piece, the actions of the peace movement might oppose the occupation, but they should not be confused as being anti-Zionist and are at best uneven and confused on the right of return of Palestinian refugees—one of the most basic demands for justice in Palestine. Fischer overstates its reach and the impact of the small handful of examples he provides.
The sarvanim (refusenik or military resister) movement similarly while important has been small and isolated, averaging roughly 5-15 resisters a year, fewer than one percent of total conscripts. Additionally, the politics of many of the sarvanim groups, while noble in acting against the occupation, fall short of calling for an end to Zionism. Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit) still holds to an idea of a Zionist state albeit within the Green Line (the armistice line established in 1948) as its boundary. Ometz La’Sarev (Courage to Refuse) couches its motivation to refuse duty as a Zionist act to “preserve Israel’s safety.” Fischer insinuates that the fact that there has been an increase in people dodging the draft because of mental health exemptions is out of solidarity with the plight of Palestinians. And yet the article he cites says nothing about that. Relatedly, he cites that the suicide rate for Israeli Jews is higher for that of Palestinians. The problem is that the piece he cites doesn’t include figures on Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank or Gaza and it also cites that the rate has decreased for Israeli Jews over the past ten years, not the case for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Similarly, he overstates the impact of the Israeli Black Panthers. The Israeli Black Panthers were a group who organized against anti-Mizrahi racism in the 1970s and connected with the Palestinian resistance movement. They were an important and remarkable occurrence as Thier states in her chapter. However as Moshe Machover and E’hud Ein-Gil who were members of Matzpen (another group of revolutionary anti-Zionists that Fischer strangely doesn’t mention) that worked with and influenced the Israeli Panthers mention that the group is the “only partial exception” to the general thesis on the Israeli working class. Indeed in the instance of the Israeli Panthers, as Panther founder Reuvin Abergel states in the piece cited by Fischer, “ultimately Israel was successful in using Palestinians as a tool to force the Mizrahim into identifying with their Jewish over Arab identities.” The harsh crack-down on the Panthers was one reason for the collapse of the organization but the other piece of the puzzle is that the trend in Mizrahi politics
in the roughly 50 years since has shifted right as Thier describes in her chapter and Otman Aitlkaboud states in his excellent two-part piece on the legacy of the group. The Black Panthers being an exception does not disprove the rule. And even the fate of the Israeli Black Panthers seems to confirm the powerful force that settler colonialism plays to dampen class conflict and oppression within the Israeli working class.
Fischer’s examples aren’t really about current working class activity. And that’s at the heart of the issue. Because if we believe that the force for revolutionary change is the working class, then it’s their activity as a class that we look to. As another example, if you look at his citing of the letter against the Nation State Law, it is a list of 60 academics, journalists, or lawyers. Not exactly the base of the working class.
Fischer seems to be aware of some of these general trends in Israeli politics as he notes several times in his essay how prevalent anti-Arab racism is among Israeli Jews and the complete lack of support for either BDS or for a democratic shared country. So while all the examples that he mentions to prove his point are legit and positive, he overstates their breadth and impact and is unable to explain why movements like the Panthers and these others have continually, for the entirety of the existence of the state of Israel not resonated with the Israeli working class and why the Israeli left has played a role supporting politically and carrying out the occupation. Fischer barely engages with Thier’s careful materialist analysis explaining “why” demonstrating how Israeli capitalism was built through investment of Israeli working class and socialist institutions, unions, and parties in a Zionist state. Simple descriptions of false consciousness are not sufficient and is akin to the errors made by Draper of misunderstanding and downplaying Israeli settler-colonialism.
One final consequence of this is his handling of Hamas. Skewed similarly to Draper’s emphasis on “defense of Israel” which I will describe later, Fischer describes Hamas as simply a “far-right group that intentionally kills Israeli civilians.” Socialists should chafe at this simple description. While I certainly have criticisms of Hamas, any criticism has to be balanced with the fact that they were democratically elected by Palestinians in 2006. Also, independent of any opinion about the effectiveness of the armed struggle against the occupation is the fact that armed resistance to occupation is legal under international law of Geneva treaties and United Nations resolutions. And it bears to mention that this is in contradistinction to Israeli occupation and its multiple human rights resolutions. It should be a simple socialist maxim to say we defend occupied peoples’ rights to resist in whatever way they see fit even if we have an opinion on its effectiveness. When Israel is continually blockading Gaza, bombing one of the most densely populated places on earth, and flattening neighborhoods, Hamas should be defended against the political attacks used to justify these war crimes. Unfortunately, Hamas being “a far-right group that intentionally kills Israeli civilians” is essentially the political attack that we need to defend against. However Fischer, again, and similar to Draper, downplays making a clear defense of resistance and being able to push back against a frankly Islamophobic characterizations of Hamas that uses the fantasy of “joint struggle” and the need to “make Israeli Jews invited” as justification.
What about US workers?
As Fischer points out, I am aware that the United States also was born out of a settler colonial context. He accuses my comrades and myself of “lacking consistency” because we don’t argue that the working class of the United States is the same as the working class of Israel. It is the case that in a book on Palestine we don’t articulate our views on the US working class and its relationship to the country’s settler-colonial origins. That question is essential and rich and it is unfortunate that Fischer’s critique here feels a bit disingenuous as he engages in an argument we don’t make in the book. Additionally, he expresses no disagreement with what he thinks our position is on the US working class but just on our inconsistency. On this point there deserves a fuller description.
Briefly however, the notion that the fact that settler colonialism, the Zionist state, and the working class of Israel are the same as that of the United States seems a stretch. From the beginning of this country through around the turn of the 20th century—as Brian Ward points out in “Are You a Settler”—settler colonialism was expressed in the very overt drive for the non-Native population displacing Indigenous folks and directly benefiting from that appropriation. In this time period, analogues between sections of the US working class and what we are saying about the Israeli working class is probably more apt. But, settler colonialism, as Nick Estes—the founder of Red Nation—points out in his book Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance has shifted throughout US history. One of the features of this is that the primary beneficiaries of settler colonialism have shifted. Estes points out that while there are still settlers and descendants of settlers in the conventional sense, it is large corporations—especially in the extractive sector who play this role. This feature—of US settler colonialism largely being driven by Capital is different than the current settler colonial project of Israel which still seeks to displace indigenous Palestinian people to make landowners of individual and collective Jewish workers.
There is certainly a much work to be done towards liberation in this so-called country and fights around struggles like the Red Deal, honoring treaties, for #LandBack and re-matriation are essential. But still this is just different from the immediacy of the contemporary project of Zionism. Unlike Zionism, one can point out how class struggle against the US capital in these issues can be waged and cross-class unity against Indigenous folks is not as central a feature in the general class character. As Jewish workers occupy the privileged status of never having to compete for jobs with Palestinians it means that they don’t need solidarity with Palestinian workers. This need to fight the ability for the bosses to divide worker against worker is what drove the important labor struggles for interracial unions in the United States. These traits and others about what makes Zionism different are the very arguments that Thier makes. The validity of this argument stands independent of what one thinks or does not think about the current nature of settler colonialism in the United States.
Responding to Fischer’s central use of Draper and the WP/ISL’s doctrinaire and misinformed approach to Palestine means a bit getting into the weeds of old debates to explore the context. But as Fischer uses the Draper article as his critique’s central argument, and as I do sometimes enjoy the musty corridors of Marxist history, I will proceed.
The debate in question occurred mostly between that of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party / International Socialist League and that of the more “orthodox” Trotskyism of the Fourth International(FI) who expelled them from the US organization in 1940. It is important that this debate was not just between groups but also within the groups themselves. Also importantly, unlike Stalinism, Trotskyists have almost always held to anti-Zionism. With that, in the post-war period the debate emerged first around the question of Jewish immigration to Palestine (which began in the late 1800s), then on the United Nations-driven partition plan, then on the Nakba itself.¹
The general majority position in this debate advanced by the FI that the WP/ISL polemicized against was opposition to Jewish immigration to Palestine. In the wake of the genocide of the Holocaust in Germany they advocated for solidarity to get other countries to allow the entry of Jews but argued that immigration to Palestine was a “terrible trap” according to Ernest Mandel in 1947 as “the Arab masses must necessarily look upon the arrival of new immigrants as the arrival of enemy soldiers; and this point of view is confirmed, moreover, by the way in which the Jewish masses look upon this immigration.” Mandel argued that the basis for the question of Jewish immigration must “start from “the sovereignty of the Arab population.” The insightful work of Palestinian-born Tony Cliff was influential to the FI position. While one could criticize the FI for having too much of a neutral stance towards Arab resistance to the Nakba, the general approach to the nature of the Zionism and its relationship to Zionist settlers and class formation can be seen as loosely corresponding with a description of the settler-colonial nature of the Israeli state.²
The WP/ISL sharply criticized this position. Albert Glotzer, in his 1947 reply to Mandel in The New International, leans the entirety of his critique on the position that “the fate of the Jews are sealed.” The “existence of bourgeois society” for Glotzer, would mean the complete extermination of Jewish people in every country in the world and that literally nothing could be done about it. While the pessimism of this position is connected to the recent events of the Holocaust, it is a prediction that—though antisemitism is still a real threat—has certainly been proven incorrect in the dire way motivating Glotzer’s claims.³ Thus, he argues that the self-determination of world Jewry demands that the “only correct, democratic, socialist slogan” would be for the free immigration of Jews to Palestine and furthermore that socialists should adopt it “despite the opposition” of Palestinians.
Practically this meant that despite Palestinian resistance—most notably the three years of mass struggle of the Great Arab Revolt at the end of the 1930’s— to what was seen correctly by Palestinians as a project of colonization backed by British imperialism, the WP/ISL campaigned on behalf of colonization.⁴ Draper himself penned an open letter in 1946 arguing for the building of a united front against Britain’s refusal at the time to ease restrictions on immigration and in support of 18 members of the Irgun—the Zionist militia that would go on to carry out terror and massacres against Palestinians during the Nakba—who were arrested by the British.
While the WP/ISL opposed the 1947 UN-sponsored partition plan, their misreading of the situation, elevation of self-determination as sacrosanct principle beyond all context, and bungled failure to understand the colonial dynamics at play meant that their writings at the time on the establishment of the state of Israel should make one cringe. Hal Draper wrote the editorial for the WP/ISL’s newspaper Labor Action on May 24th in response to Israel’s declaration of its statehood and after about 6 weeks of the organized “Plan Dalet” campaign of ethnic cleansing and massacres carried out by Zionist militia.⁵ Entitled “War of Independence or Expansion” Draper argues that the events of ethnic cleansing were merely self-defense against a “reactionary war of invasion” and calls for lifting of embargos on sending arms to the Zionist militias. Socialists are “required” to defend Zionists right to “defend their choice of separate national existence against any and all reactionary attempts to deprive them of that right.”
Palestinians in Draper’s piece literally do not exist as all resistance is described as entirely the domain of the “reactionary feudal Arab ruling class.” This a tragic erasure of the agency of Palestinians, suffering and resisting their forced expulsion from their home. While he calls for unity between Jews and Arabs and the furtherance of a socialist state with equal rights etc, he argues that Arabs are unfit for this task because “it is the Jews who are the most advanced socially and culturally, because it is they who claim to be socialists.” He argued this again in 1956 that because of “superior cultural and technical resources” Israel could be a “beneficent leader and guide” to the Arab people. This is a heinous position to take by a political current distinguished by campaigning against the idea that socialism can be brought from above or without.
The piece concludes with Draper saying that without a socialist program the “sacrifices of the Jewish people and the military victories of the Haganah will not be able to make of Palestine anything but a deathtrap.” So therefore colonialism—and the “victory” of ethnic cleansing that the Haganah were responsible for—could be socialist and could be a simple expression of the principle of self-determination. In a piece written a few months later called “How to Defend Israel” he argues not that the colonial project is flawed but that the error is that what is needed is the giving of the “victory a social meaning.” By not viewing the events of the creation of the state of Israel as the expression the project of settler colonialism, Draper gives socialist colors to a violent colonial project, denies Palestinian agency, and makes arguments quite congruent with the many of the liberal (and racist) justifications for Zionism (only democracy in the “backwards” Middle East, land without a people for people without a land, etc.). This is the key, ghastly error of Draper and his co-thinkers.
These positions were formalized by a resolution passed by the International Socialist League in 1951. The resolution articulates these same arguments and distill a key argument they make which is that socialists should be for the abstract right of self-determination of peoples independent of the advisability of the exercise of that right by separation, i.e. new states, organizations etc. In the abstract, this formulation this is largely correct and draws on Lenin’s important work on national self-determination. But as Tony Cliff argued before the Nakba: “only the greatest superficiality can drive one to the conclusion that this slogan holds good at all times and under all conditions.” In the case of Palestine, its abstraction floats obliviously above the fact that there was no idea of the Jewish nation state in Palestine that was not Zionist.
This resolution was critiqued by Clovis Maksoud, a member of the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon which was associated with the country’s Druze minority.⁶ It was Maksoud’s piece—published in Labor Action in 1954—critical of WP/ISL position that was the target of the Draper’s polemic quoted by Fischer.
Many of Maksoud’s points have been proven largely correct by the decades since. Maksoud argues that the WP/ISL “made a fundamental error” by identifying the resistance to Israel as only the domain of the Arab ruling class who try to “pervert it to their selfish ends.” Rather, resistance to Israel was also a part of a “much broader fight” of the struggle against imperialism. It is actually the state of Israel—argued Maksoud—that’s presence in the region “acts a deterrent to the revolutionary aspirations of the Arab masses.” Because of this he argues that Western socialists who “continue their one-sided support for Israel” they will “contribute to the perpetuation of reaction in the area.” Maksoud also takes the WP/ISL to task for embracing the “widely held Zionist-theory that Arabs are incapable of developing their own areas.” And lastly he skewers the WP/ISL focus on an abstract notion of self-determination as being the main issue. He argues that their position: “Disregards the means by which this right is to be executed, and it denies the interests of the people in Palestine their sovereign right to admit or refuse these claims. In other words, what is claimed by the resolution to be an act of Jewish ‘self-determination’ is dependent for its fruition on an act of aggression and imposition.”
Maksoud isn’t all right, but on several on his main points he is dead on and the analysis of Israel’s role in the region and the connection of the struggle to Palestine to anti-imperialism has—unlike the socialist vanguard fantasy advanced by the Draper—proved completely correct and the chapter in our book by Shireen Akram-Boshar demonstrates this expertly. His conclusion is that what is needed is the end (emasculation as he calls it) to an explicitly Zionist state and the right of return to Palestinian refugees.⁷
It was in response to Maksoud’s arguments that Draper wrote the polemic “Mistakes of the Arab Socialists” that Fischer uses in his piece. In it Draper lays out an opposition to Zionism, the general need for joint struggle from below regionally, and the need for a democratic state. But the argument of the need for “joint struggle” that Fischer focuses on is used by Draper to buttress the main point of his piece which is polemicizing against the overthrow of the Zionist state. Draper states he is not “for” a Zionist state but expresses the need to assert the need to defend its current existence. Its confused contradictions are the product of the complete absence of any analysis of Zionism being a colonial project. He dreams of an Israel that “overcomes its Zionist illusions and policies.” Israel and “self-determination” are rendered power-neutral, seen only question is that of two “nations”, just figuring out “how people in the region can live together.”
This abstract take on self-determination also means that in the same piece he bizarrely argues that white South Africans should be supported (even if we disagree with them) if they chose to establish a white-only separatist state in South Africa. But as the South African Trotskyist Hosea Jaffe said: “We cannot consider the shell of a slogan without its substance.”
Considering this substance, Draper’s emphasis on joint struggle is expressed as a counter-position to arguments about the need to end the Zionist state, its role as vanguard of regional reaction, and the need for a right of return. It is easy to talk about joint struggle if you skip over the analysis of the settler-colonial situation and its effect on class formation. It is easy to, as Draper did two years later lay out an extensive ten-point program (which includes the right-of-return) for how Israel can “win support” of the Arab masses “against their own reactionary rulers” and think that the Zionist state has any interest in dissolving its foundations as a settler colonial ethnostate and abandon the imperial sponsorship that makes the whole endeavor possible. Colonialism never happened, only “self-determination.” Socialists should be clear, we don’t support the self-determination for colonial settlers who are a part of imperialist occupation projects.
Of all this Fischer says that what “Draper contended in 1954 is still true today.” Fischer’s use of Draper here—which feels like a “gotcha” because he makes a point that we quote Draper’s writings on Marxism but “unfortunately” don’t talk about his earlier espousal of the WP/ISL position on Israel—is actually the choice less fortunate. In doing so he resuscitates this debate in the international Trotskyist movement and the doctrinaire, mistaken approach of WP/ISL on Israel. This position on Palestine held by the WP/ISL, by now mostly a historical curio of the left, should remain that way as the argument in its wooden estimation of Lenin’s approach to the national question comes dangerously close to ignoring Israel’s perpetration of the Nakba on Palestinians, ignores Palestinians agency and right of return. It lacks an analysis of the settler-colonial nature of the Zionists state and have been shown to be wrong in the sixty years since they were made.
None of this is to say that the politics of socialism from below or of Draper are corrupted. Indeed I revere his work generally, and myself and the people named in Fischer’s critique consider themselves in his loose tradition. Additionally it is a marker of his political strength that in the 1950s he argued for the right of return, for de-Zionisation of Israel, for one state, etc. But in his handling of the nature of the Zionist state and class character of the Israeli working class he was wrong. There are some signs that his position might have shifted some as after the piece that Fischer quoted some of his criticism of Israel become sharper and his tone in the last thing he wrote on the subject, ten years later, as the Six-Day War was beginning actually talks about Nakba, still has the “conflict between two sides” context that is a product of his misunderstanding of the colonial nature, but is less Panglossian about the progessive potential of Israel. Was Draper’s position shifting as he viewed more the trajectory of Zionism? This is uncertain.⁸ But what is certain is that it is one thing for Draper to make a political error in the 1940s & 1950s, or to have hope for the Israeli Black Panthers in the 1970s; it is another to double down on this wrong position having witnessed the past forty years of the political development of Zionism.
With this as the base, Fischer’s argument against the position argued by Thier and others is flawed. To justify this he overstates the breadth and potential of the examples that he uses and misses the overarching and underlying structures that have informed developments in Israeli political economy. There is difference between instances and trends that are important to political strategy. For example, I think that in the course of the struggle for socialism it is likely that there may be some billionaires who may be won to the side of socialism. However to organize your political strategy for the expropriation of billionaires on winning them over as a class is a dead-end folly. I do have hope for the Israeli working class but the main driver, and focus of our strategy is changing the situation on the ground, the colonial reality and upsetting the Zionist blockage to solidarity will come about primarily not from the Israeli working class but through the regional uprising of the Arab working class and from Palestinians themselves. They are who we should look to. That, I think, is what it means to be consistent in your approach to liberation in Palestine.
1 Of course the term Nakba is not used by any of the pieces I am discussing here.
2 It is notable that though the FI statement on the Nakba at the time does seek to straddle the divide with its “against all chauvinism” thrust, it does—unlike the position of the WP/ISL, which I will describe later—include the important demand:“For the right of the Arab masses to determine their own future.”
3 US immigration restrictions affecting Jewish immigrants from Europe that were criminally narrow during the Holocaust were lifted in 1948.
4 For more on Palestinian resistance pre-1948 see pg 55 in Palestine: A Socialist Introduction
5 For more on Plan Dalet see Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, (Oxford, Oneworld; 2006)
6 It is also important to note that it is a testament to the WP/ISL’s attention to democracy and political debate that they printed a two-part criticism of their politics from someone not in their organization in their paper. It is also interesting to note Maksoud’s political trajectory to becoming a prominent Arab League diplomat and ambassador to the United States.
7 One point of debate between Maksoud and Draper that I will not take up here but flag is the question of what kind of “national rights” would there be in a single democratic state.
8 An astute reader could respond to this question and point to the preface right before his death where he says that his line on Israel/Palestine has been proven right because it is carried by the PLO in 1990. This is a highly ambiguous and uncharastically imprecise for Draper. Which part of the line? Its criticism of Zionism? The bi-national state? Class character of Israeli working class? Also is the fact that the PLO advocates it necessarily mean it is correct, especially on the dawn of Oslo?