Israel/Palestine: what can socialists do? by Roger Silverman

This is the text of a speech made by Roger Silverman, who is a jewish socialist and a leading member of the Workers International Network. It was given in a meeting titled “Israel/Palestine: what can socialists do?” which was held on October 24th. Roger was speaking as a representative of WIN.

We are living through a period of existential crisis. The sudden outbreak of war in Israel/Palestine is only the latest in a series of convulsive shocks. The word genocide is one that should be used only with caution; but Israel’s blockade of Gaza, cutting off water, food and electricity while relentlessly bombing its helpless population, is virtually proclaimed by its perpetrators themselves in terms of genocide. How has this come about?

Before the Nazi holocaust, Zionism was little more than an outlandish sect. The Jews in Eastern Europe were a persecuted minority forcibly confined to their own ghettoes. They spoke their own language, Yiddish, they had a distinct culture, music, theatre, magazines and newspapers, and their political orientation was to the socialist Bund. The Bundists’ riposte to the Zionists was: We’re going nowhere! This is our home! Even the terrible pogroms which propelled a huge tidal wave of mass migration (including by my own ancestors) gave little sustenance to Zionist aspirations.

But Zionism was cleverly exploited by British imperialism. With the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, it would allow them to create an outpost within the turbulent oil-rich region. In the words of the first British military governor of Jerusalem, it would be “a loyal little Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”. With the Balfour Declaration in 1917, made during the First World War when the Ottoman Empire had crumbled, it deliberately cultivated Zionism as a strategic weapon, just as it later promoted Wahhabism and fanatical Islamic fundamentalism – one offshoot of that strategy being Hamas – to sow division in the Arab world. A Jewish homeland in Palestine would serve as an outpost to protect its access to the oilfields against the Arab revolution and its control at that time of Egypt, the Suez Canal and the route to India.

I recently found a quotation by someone who had been reading Herzl’s book on Zionism: “The book interested me very much… Somehow this book touched a chord in me and I took it all in…” Who was the author of these lines? Adolf Eichmann! He continued: “It fell in with our own desire for a political solution: the Zionists wanted a territory where the Jewish people could finally settle in peace. And that was pretty much what the Nazis wanted.

By wiping out thriving settled communities and dispersing their pitifully few survivors, it was the Nazis who gave Zionism a plausible legitimacy. It was an admission of despair, an acknowledgment that anti-semitism had prevailed; a lasting legacy of Nazism. Today’s bloodbath in Palestine is really yet another horrific aftershock of the failure of the German revolution of 1918-23.

In 1942 my father Sydney Silverman, a left Labour MP, was chair of the British section of the World Jewish Congress. In this capacity he received early warnings of the impending holocaust. He fought desperately for the right of refuge and asylum in Britain for Europe’s Jews. But the Home Secretary in the wartime coalition government – Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson’s grandfather – deliberately blocked entry by Jews fleeing the holocaust. British immigration policy throughout that period “was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews – perhaps ten times as many as it let in”. And the Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government Ernest Bevin ordered the sinking of the ships carrying concentration camp survivors fleeing the misery of displaced persons’ internment camps to seek a homeland in Palestine. On their part, their aspiration was not to establish a Zionist state or to dispossess the Palestinians; they were simply desperate to find somewhere to live. So when Labour’s right wing claim to be friends of the Jews, let them be reminded of their murderous record of drowning them in the Mediterranean, just as migrants in the opposite direction are being drowned there today.

In the Middle East as in all the territories administered by the British Empire, a calculated policy of “divide-and-rule” was set in motion to promote communal conflict. We still see the bloody consequences of this heritage of “British civilisation” in ethnic conflicts around the world today: in Ireland, the Indian sub-continent, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Palestine… In the Middle East, Israel soon became a tool of US imperialism: a dependent client-state enclave within the oil-rich Middle East as a bulwark against the Arab revolution. 

Zionism came to mean a racist apartheid regime; and now an agent of extermination. The constant wars, the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade on Gaza, the colonial resettlements, the massacre of unarmed demonstrators are monstrous crimes. But it is a mistake to regard Zionism as a unique evil. The atrocities in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank are every bit as horrific as the bloodbaths in Sharpeville in 1960; or in Amritsar in 1919; or the tortures inflicted in the Kenya death camps; or the internment and assassinations in Northern Ireland.

But the comparison with the apartheid regime in South Africa is completely accurate. Israel is explicitly defined as a Jewish state. Jews the world over have an automatic right to settle there – I could move there tomorrow (not that I want to); Arabs who had lived there for generations were expelled and denied the right to return; Palestinians have been legally defined as second-class citizens. 

Socialists give solidarity to all victims of oppression – with the past Jewish victims of Nazism and equally with the current Palestinian victims of Zionism. We understand perfectly why a “back to Africa” movement developed among black people in the USA; why Muslims in British India yearned for sanctuary within the sub-continent; and why Jewish holocaust survivors were desperately seeking a homeland of their own. But we will not tolerate any state that is defined by ethnicity or religion: an “Israel for the Jews” any more than a “Britain for the British”.

But history can’t be unwritten. There are historical precedents: in the settlement by equally desperate migrants to the Americas, and the antipodes, and to South Africa. Terrible crimes of extermination were committed against the indigenous populations of all these countries, and similar crimes are being inflicted today against the Palestinians. We don’t call for the expulsion of the descendants of these migrant settlers, nor for the abolition of Pakistan, whose settlers were also fleeing from massacres back home. Generations have grown up in Israel in the last 75 years, and they have no other home. What we condemn is Israel’s identity as a racially designated state in which non-Jews face discrimination and which acts as a regional military occupation power. That is the definition of apartheid.

So what’s the answer? Not two neighbouring hostile mini-states; not even one single unwieldy state confined within that artificially designated strip of land. Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire, British and French imperialists ruthlessly carved up the region by drawing arbitrary lines on the map (the Sykes/Picot plan). Sectarian conflicts have raged throughout the region ever since: in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan… The only way out of catastrophe is to unite all working people of the region within a common homeland of all communities in a harmonious socialist federation of the Middle East.

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