Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Zionism and its discontents

A new book looks at dissenting voices within the historical Zionist Movement, showing their advocacy of the Palestinian cause, writes Ludwig Watzal

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Ran Greenstein, Zionism and Its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine, London: Pluto Press, 2014, pp 248

Nationalist narratives and political movements have dominated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a long time. They have all ended up in a dead end.

This insight has led Ran Greenstein, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, not to look at history in retrospect, knowing the outcome, but rather to examine it from the contemporaneous perspective of the actors. None of the anti-Zionist actors discussed in this book achieved his goals, but they all made contributions that could serve as starting points for new actions.

Four political movements that challenged Zionism are examined in the book. These include the bi-nationalist movement of the British Mandate period; the Palestinian Communist Party of the same period; the Palestinian National Movement in its various permutations, beginning with the Mandate period and continuing to the present; and the anti-Zionist Matzpen Group from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Why does Greenstein specifically focus on these four movements? All of them stood up to Zionist dominance and the colonial settlement project before and after 1948. According to the author, Zionist activists and scholars may find it strange to see their political movements and claims reflected from the perspective of their critics and opponents. But this approach, so the author says, avoids writing history from the “perspective of the victors.”

In his first chapter, Greenstein focuses on the liberal-humanist critique of Zionism expressed early on by Asher Ginsburg, better known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am, and Yitzhak Epstein, who both entertained reservations about Jewish settlements in Palestine. Ahad Ha’am lambasted the prejudice according to which Arabs were merely “savages” and the country was uninhabited.

Epstein’s critique focused more on the political implications of the settlements. His concern was with land acquisition. Although the early Zionist settlers bought the land legally from large landlords, the former Arab tenants were evicted, violating the custom that tenants remained on the land when it changed hands. Ahad Ha’am’s message was: the bride is already married to another man.

Neither Ha’am nor Epstein focused on political nationalism, but rather on Arab local nationalism and dispossession. Another less well-known group of Mizrahi and Sephardi activists advocated a more assimilative approach towards the Arabs. Shimon Moyal and Nissim Malul preferred a more inclusive Zionism better attuned to local conditions in Palestine. They asked for the co-existence of the two peoples.

“It was a more peaceful and realistic approach than the dominant trend of exclusive Zionism,” according to Greenstein. The key concept of Brit Shalom was that of political parity. Jews and Arabs should share state power equally, regardless of their proportions in the population.

But the ideas of Simon, Scholem and others could not prevail against the forces within the Zionist Movement that sided with the declining British imperialist power. “Despite its progressive pretentions, Zionism turned its back on the forces of tomorrow, the oppressed people of the region,” writes Greenstein.

In the mid-1930s, Brit Shalom was no longer on the scene and Kedma Mizraha (Forward to the East) filled the gap. This “nonpartisan” organisation was not so outspoken on political issues as Brit Shalom and was easier to handle by the different Zionist branches.

According to the author, Kedma Mizraha was an “apolitical version of the early Brit Shalom.”

The latter pushed its own political agenda opposed to the core ideas of political Zionism, which were “Palestine as the site for the solution of the Jewish problem, working for a Jewish majority in the country, and calling for a Jewish state as the ultimate goal of the movement.” Kedima Mizraha supported the Zionist leadership, especially that of the Jewish Agency, whose boss was David Ben-Gurion.

In the early 1940s, the Zionist Movement revealed in the Biltmore Programme its real purpose: the establishment of a Jewish “state”.

Before 1942 it was camouflaged by the euphemism of a “national home” for the Jewish people. Amidst these conditions, a new bi-national movement emerged: Ihud (Union), led by Judah Magnes and Martin Buber.

Both supported the idea of a “union between the Jewish and the Arab peoples for the building of Palestine and for cooperation between the Jewish world and the Arab world in all branches of life.” They called for a “government in Palestine based upon equal political rights for the two peoples.”

Whereas Brit Shalom and Ihud expressed Arab concerns about increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, the socialist organisation Hashomer Hatza’ir underlined the benefits for the Arab population through the increased mechanisation of agriculture. But these political tranquilisers issued by the leftist Zionists could not dispel the concerns of the Arab population, because the latter realised that colonisation was not to its advantage.

This suspicion was further fuelled by Zionist slogans about the “redemption of the land” and the “conquest of labour.” Increasingly, the Arab population revolted against Zionist encroachment. Even then, such resistance was decried as “terrorism” by the Zionists. The political developments amounted to the division of the country: reasonable and dissident calls for a bi-national solution lacked widespread support and consequently fell into disuse.

With the liberal-humanist critique of mainstream Zionism emerged a left-wing current that elevated universal socialist principles above nationalism. In chapter two of the book, the author cites a text by Russian revolutionary Ilia Rubanovich, who formulated three axioms that inform left-wing opposition to Zionism to this day.

These were, first, that Zionism would trample over the rights of indigenous Arabs; second, that it would force the settlers into an alliance with imperialist forces; and third, that it would segregate Jews from the masses in their own countries and thus prevent working-class unity. According to Greenstein, these three topics can be discerned throughout the history of the anti-Zionist left narrative.

Chapter two also focuses on the pre-1948 Palestinian Communist Party. This chapter shows how national identities and loyalties mattered more than an internationalist attitude. “Yeshuvism” and “Arabisation” were the new guiding principles in the struggle for independence. An aggravating factor was that the Communist Party was a member of the Comintern, an international alliance of Communist parties, whose twists and turns it had to follow.

International solidarity was nipped in the bud by nationalism. Greenstein points out that the behaviour of the different actors has to be seen in a wider context, and Palestine saw a fierce clash of two national movements.

While Jews in Europe experienced a deadly assault on their livelihoods and their abilities to survive, Arabs were seeking independence after centuries of foreign rule, the British were facing challenges to their Empire and the struggle between liberal democracy, fascism and Soviet-style communism was being waged in Europe with extraordinary intensity.

Chapter three of the book deals with Palestinian nationalism and the anti-colonial struggle. Greenstein links this to three historical events, namely the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the UN Partition Resolution of 29 November 1947, and the start of the Six Day War on 5 June 1967. According to the author, these events did not create new realities from scratch, but rather reinforced pre-existing developments or opened up new historical possibilities.

“In particular, they helped give rise to new patterns of settlement and resistance, and thus reshaped relations between the main protagonists of the evolving conflict,” he says. Thus, it is not surprising that the Palestinian movement emerged “as a nationalist project to gain recognition and independence for a specific group identified in ethnic and national terms.” Under prevailing regional and international power configurations it was not surprising that in 1973 the movement gave up its bid for independence of all of Palestine.

After the Israeli Communist parties of Maki and Rakah had become entangled in nationalism, it was time for a new movement that could present the common struggle for a bi-national socialist state on the international stage in contemporary jargon. In 1962, the Israeli Socialist Organisation (ISO) was formed and became known for its monthly publication Matzpen (“compass” in Hebrew). There were only a handful of members who split from the Maki and Rakah parties, however, though after the June War Matzpen rose to relative prominence.

Its members criticised Zionist ideology from a radical leftist viewpoint. The founding members, Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr, were former members of the Israeli Communist Party. Though they were kicked out of the party for violating internal discipline, their opinions on the conflict had not changed.

They called for mutual recognition of the right to self-determination of two peoples living in the country, the return of the Palestinian refugees and compensation for those who did not want to return. In its first years, the position of Matzpen was not very different from that of the Israeli Communist Party and it neither challenged the existence of Israel nor the right of Israeli Jews to self-determination, the author writes.

However, in contrast to other parties, Matzpen called Zionism itself into question, describing it as a form of colonialism. It was “a colonialism of a special type,” being “colonialism of the Zionist Movement.” The difference between “normal colonialism” and “Zionist colonialism” was that the latter sought the dispossession of the Palestinians in order to create a Jewish state, whereas the former aimed at the exploitation of native labour and resources.

Consequently, Machover and Orr called for a “de-Zionisation of Israel” that would bring an end to the discrimination and oppression of the Arab citizens of the state. For them, the conflict was national in nature and colonial in essence, Greenstein writes.

According to the author, Matzpen consolidated its orientation between 1967 and 1979. The de-Zionisation of Israel had two components: first, equal rights and redress for Palestinian-Arab residents and refugees alike; and second, integration of the country in a socialist union in the Middle East.

After the June War, a third component was added, namely the struggle against the occupation and its consequences. An overall solution was only possible if Israel withdrew from its Zionist path and integrated itself as a non-Zionist state in the region.

The great value of this book lies in its presentation of political ideas that have not lost their resonance. They have still to be implemented in order to solve the conflict in Palestine. As a broad conclusion, the author recommends as a political strategy the use of the language of democracy, equality and human rights rather than that of diplomacy and statehood, thus overturning the Oslo approach.

The advantage of this strategy would be that it could associate itself with global justice movement and struggles that bring together independent forces, civil society organisations and media activists.


The writer is a journalist in Bonn, Germany.

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