Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Left in Palestine Conference - Promise Unfulfilled

Academic Left Conference on Palestine Fails to Match Up to Expectations

The weekend of 27-28th February saw the holding of a quite unique conference on the Left and the Palestinian Question. I cannot remember a similar attempt to hold such a conference in the past. It is therefore doubly unfortunate that there was no attempt to think beyond the conference, in terms of extending and pursuing the debates and linking them to organisations involved practically in Palestine solidarity work in Britain and internationally.

Indeed the nearest example of such a conference was the one which was held some 2 or so years ago by SOAS Palestine Society on the Unitary State in Palestine. In terms of its political impact, which was more akin to the coming of age of an idea, then the first conference stands out in comparison.

The Conference was marred by the fact that Israel was in a position to block the apperance of two of the speakers – Leila Khaled of the PFLP and Jamal Juma of the Bilin resistance to the Apartheid Wall – who were unable to obtain visas or in Jamal’s case, his confiscated passport.
The Conference was opened by a video of Asmi Bishara, who was clearly unhappy speaking to an audience he could not see or hear. It was a nice idea but it did not work very well.

The first session was chaired by the Socialist Worker’s Party resident expert on the Middle East, John Rose. Speakers were Musa Budeiri, Ilan Pappe and Leena Dallasheh. Musa Budeiri gave an informative talk on ‘Palestine as the last colonial venture – communists, nationalists and settlers.’

Ilan Pappe, whose only contribution this was to the conference, spoke on the contradictions of the Zionist left. It was not one of his better performances and it was only through talking to him later that I learnt that he had spent most of his political life in the nearly defunct ‘left’ Zionist group, Mapam.

I felt that Pappe’s stress on ‘manipulation’ as a concept to be applied to left Zionism was effectively ignoring the real lessons one should draw from the experience of socialist Zionism. Yes there was and is manipulation and cynicism but the key political point is that even those who were honestly intentioned, who were sincere in their view that they were socialists, were forced by circumstances into becoming the oppressor. There is no humanitarian colonisation. And this is because it isn’t an inability of different peoples to communicate or get along but because the structures put in place by colonisation and the situation that is thus created made it inevitable that there was a conflict of interest between the coloniser and colonised.

This explains the phenomenon beloved among left-Zionism, but also common in Ireland and in south Africa under Apartheid, of ignoring the institutions and structures of racism in favour of emphasis on the personal. ‘If only they get to speak to each other and understand each others’ cultures’ as if the problem was one of personal antagonism rather than racism and exploitation. This finds its culmination in the project so beloved of the hypocrites of Mapam (whose now defunct paper Al Hamishmar) of the joint Jewish/Arab village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam, which describes itself as ‘Hebrew and Arabic for Oasis of Peace [Isaiah 32:18]): A village, jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, that is engaged in educational work for peace, equality and understanding between the two peoples.’

Ironically, because of Israel’s apartheid land ownership, the village could only be established on land leased from the Trappist monks of Latrun!

In the little time allotted to those from the floor I made the point that this was too simplistic. That Poale Zion in Russia had formed a Borochov regiment that fought alongside the Boslsheviks in the civil war and that a number of socialist Zionists had fought and died in the civil war in Spain on the side of the Republicans.

Of course reading back into history one can say that left-Zionism in its present incarnations is indeed a fraud and falsity but at the time, many thousands of Jewish workers were indeed caught between socialism and Zionism. In times of despair and weakness then Zionism seemed attractive. When anti-semitism reached its peak as in Poland then Zionism lost its attractiveness as it had nothing to offer in the fight against the fascists. Likewise many sincere socialists who went to Palestine found that the colonial circumstances and reality of their role inevitably turned them into the colonial oppressors of the Palestinians. It was a question of material circumstances winning out over ideology.

This is why in the Mapam kibbutz federation Ha’artzi there was a political schizophrenia whereby socialist ideas co-existed simultaneously with the day to day reality of their role as occupiers of the confiscated land of the Palestinians. Indeed at no stage did these ‘socialist’ Zionists even think of asking how to reconcile a Jewish only institution such as the Kibbutzim with ideas of the brotherhood of man and universalism. This was the stuff of Stalinism where one is left parroting ‘socialist’ ideas in a complete divorce from reality, at least until the whole edifice comes crumbling down.

But in the process of resolution and clarification within left Zionism there were real conflicts and for a minority this led, as with left Poale Zion, to members abandoning Zionism altogether. One such conflict, which almost no-one mentions is the war that took place in the 1920’s between Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi of Ahdut Ha’avodah (later the 1st Prime Minister and 2nd President of Israel) against the Gdud Avodah (work brigades), mobile gangs of labourers engaged in road building and similar work, who were based in the northern kibbutzim. Ben-Gurion literally starved them out and used the British army as a weapon against them. A minority of the Gdud workers did indeed break from Zionism. This is covered in some detail in Zeev Sternhall’s Founding Myths of Zionism, which unfortunately continues left Zionism’s political myopia as the Arab working class are almost entirely absent from any discussion of what took place.

None of this was part of a debate at the Conference, as to what if any lessons could be learnt for today. Yet sections of the left still cling to the idea that there is hope in the Jewish working class and a number of speakers such as Moshe Machover alluded to the potential among Israeli workers for joint struggle with the Palestinians. The most interesting speaker in this session was Leena Dallashe on the labour movement in Nazareth in Mandate Palestine.

The second session on the left of the PLO in exile was marred from the start by the fact that Leila Khaled, a senior member of the PFLP, was denied a visa. Jamal Hilal’s talk on the shaping of the Palestinian left was interesting but Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese-French Trotskyist and Professor at SOAS was extremely disappointing. Yes it is true that the PFLP’s opposition to Hamas comes in the form of an ultra militaristism. But this is not unknown with left-nationalist groups e.g. the Irish National Liberation Army in Ireland.

The obvious question at a conference of socialists was how the Palestinians can emulate the Black working class of South Africa when they are based not on mines but refugee camps? Refugees do not make for militant workers. They are, at best, on the periphery of the working class. Israel has excluded Palestinian workers from its economy for very good reasons. In the Occupied Territories there is precious little industry as opposed to the spin-offs from western aid and Palestinian Authority corruption. And that which there is is subject to Israel’s control via import/export controls. Still less did Achcar try to point a way ahead or indeed provide anything remotely approximating to a critical analysis. Indeed for all his academic credentials Achcar had very little of substance to say.

The third session featuring Dina Matar, Muhammad Jaradat and Toufic Haddad on the Left of the PLO was more interesting, not least Toufic’s contribution on Oslo and the aftermath.
The final session of Saturday on ‘The Palestinian Left in the Israeli State’ was where the sparks flew! Having never even heard of Areen Hawari of Balad (Tajamu) before, I have to say that she was highly articulate and impressive. Unfortunately the same could not be said for either Issam Makhoul of the Israeli Communist Party (DFPE) or Ahmad Sa’di, an academic at Manchester University who seems to be much published. One can only hope that Sa’di’s academic publications are more rigorous than his own speech!

Makhoul gave the kind of contribution one would expect of unrepentant Stalinists. He deplored all oppression but it had nothing to do with Zionism which would wither on the vine of its own contradictions. He also deplored the ‘ugly face of demographic fears’ without ever once managing to work out that maybe, just possibly, Zionism and its belief in a Jewish State had a tenuous connection with such fears. But theory was never the strong point of a party that remained faithful to Moscow to the end.

Sa’di had come well prepared. Unfortunately he was too well prepared and launched into a non-stop 20 minute harangue of the Israeli Communist Party. Now it is well known that the Soviet Union reversed its previous position of support for the Palestinians and not only supported Partition in Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, but actively supplied the Zionists with weapons via its Czech satellite. But does one seriously expect principle from a ‘Communist’ movement that could roll over and accept the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939? Or the attempt of Stalin to form a pact with said Hitler, Mussolini and Togo? Even the attempt, in the first session, to try and draw the speakers’ attention to the effects of this on the Left and the Communist Parties in the Arab world drew only scepticism. Stalin in his lunacy believed that the major task ahead was to be rid of Britain in the Middle East, in the process ignoring the fact that this was also the goal of the USA! Stalin saw in the revolt of the Zionists against the British some form of anti-imperialism. It was lunacy because the Zionists were no more anti-imperialist than Ian Smith of Rhodesia was when declaring UDI. Both were, if anything, more racist and atavistic than the imperialists themselves. Colonial revolts against the mother country are hardly unknown.

There is absolutely no doubt that the Communist Party of Israel acted as a scab agent when its leader Meir Vilner appended his signatory to the Declaration of Independence of Israel as a Jewish state. The refusal to ever question Zionism or the ideological and political basis of the State, which is unique in the world, is what has led to the CP’s status today as a minority among Israel’s Arab population. But it also has to be recognised that at a time when Israel’s Arabs were under military rule, the only support that they had or indeed representation was from Rakah (Communist Party). It was they who produced the fearless advocate Felicia Langer. Rakah did indeed betray the Palestinian people by making themselves into the equivalent of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition but at the same time they were the only opponents of Jewish racism in the Jewish state.

I have no doubt that Sa’adis contribution was sincerely meant and that the case he makes is incontestable. But I’m not at all sure that springing an ambush is the best way of politically defeating one’s opponents! As it is Makhoul walked out of the session and when he came back on stage it was clear that he had the sympathy of the audience with him. Sa’adi also didn’t help his case by making a whole number of mistakes suggesting that he was simply not on top of his brief. I remember listening to the diatribe with only half an ear until I heard mention of Rakah/Khadash’s attachment to ‘Borochovism’.

To those who don’t know, Borochov was the founder of Poale Zion in Russia, expelled in 1901 for nationalism and Zionist deviations from the Russian Social Democratic Party circa 1902. He emigrated to the United States, where he supported the imperialist war as well as opposing that section of Poale Zion who joined forces with the Bolsheviks. His distinctive theory was that of the ‘inverted pyramid’, viz. that the social and economic structure of Diaspora Jews is an anomaly. Basically there are too few workers and too many capitalists and professionals. Only on their ‘own’ land could the pyramid be re-inverted and a normal, healthy social structure be created and on that basis only could the Jews then engage in class war. Borochov supplied the ideological underpinnings of first Poale Zion and then Mapam.

Of course this was nonsense. Jews were participating in the class struggle without the need to get seasick! Ironically both Marx and Borochov were united in a mutual misapprehension as to the changing structure and proletarianisation of the Jewish masses. But this was a theory of left Zionism. The CP in Israel was never a Zionist party. To ascribe to it a left-Zionist theorem is to misunderstand Zionism, in both its left and right variants. In his contribution to the discussion Moshe Machover, having being himself expelled from the Israeli CP, pointed out a number of other mistakes.

And given that the Chair, Bashir Abu-Manneh, seemed intent on vying for the title of worst chair with Achcar, we had a wonderful recipe for a lecture meeting! I say this with some interest as I had proposed at the start of the session that speakers come back at the very end of audience questions, rather than after each round of 3 comments, in order that there could be some participation by people (since this was supposed to be a left conference!). Manneh, of course, forgot that which he agreed, and when I pointed out his amnesia flew into a rage (John Rose told me I should respect this as a conference – presumably not of the SWP variety!).

Only Areen Hawari made the session at all interesting and informative as she articulated her position as a feminist member of Balad. Including a description of how women members of the PFLP were abandoned by their male ‘comrades’ when Hamas physically intimidated them into covering up their faces, surely something which could have been the cue for a genuine discussion of the role of Hamas both as a resistance organisation and as a reactionary political current. Indeed the failure to discuss the politics of Hamas and why they have grown was another lacuna in the conference agenda and a pretty major one at that.

The first session on Sunday was chaired by Nira Yuval Davies of Matzpen, an exiled Israeli academic. This was potentially the most interesting, but at the same time the most frustrating of sessions.

The star of the show was Adar Grayevsky, a 28 year old feminist law student and member of Anarchists Against the Wall. Fellow panellist Warschawski seemed like a proud father. It is telling that, as someone put it to me later, every anarchist in Israel knows each other because there are so few of them. Israel is not a natural or hospitable environment for anarchists and radicals and most of those it produces sooner or later head into exile. One suspects that Adar too will face a time when she has feels she has little alternative if only for the sake of her mental and physical health. But the conference understood and appreciated the bravery and honesty of those young Israelis who defy the national consensus to take their stand alongside the Palestinians of Bi’lin.

Other speakers included Michael Warschawski, Director of the Alternative Information Centre. Michael was been a political activist for decades and was one of the founders of Matzpen, the Socialist Organisation in Israel. As well as having been gaoled in a trumped up charge of having worked with the PFLP he was a leader of the Fourth International in Israel. His activism and consistent record of support for the oppressed notwithstanding, his political limitations led to his support for Oslo.

Alongside him on the platform was Moshe Machover, a co-founder of Matzpen, and someone on the opposite side from Warschawski when there was a split between the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv branches of Matzpen. Machover is another long-standing Israel academic and active in anti-Zionist politics despite being in his ‘70’s. Machover is, par excellence, a theoretician and academic, an emeritus professor at King’s College, his field being mathematical logic.

Having recently debated with him and Jack Conrad of the Communist Party of Great Britain over 2 States, nationalism and self-determination, I think I can sum up Machover’s argument thus: the Palestine conflict can’t be solved within the box of Palestine. On that there is pretty much general agreement. The actions of Mubarak recently in attacking the Gaza Convoy and Freedom March, as well as building an iron wall on Gaza’s southern border with the USA demonstrate the truth of that. Just as the Saudis previously supported the Phalange in Lebanon, alongside Israel. The rough demographic parity in Palestine between Jew and Arab means that any future unitary state has to include full rights of cultural autonomy and language rights for Jews and non-Jews.

If Israel is the watchdog of US imperialism in the Middle East, the Arab regimes are its junior partners. The Mubaraks, Hashemite and Saudi dynasties have everything to fear from the disappearance of the Zionist entity. The fate of these regimes is contingent on support from the imperialists against their own peoples. If the Palestinians have been the primary victims of Zionism, then they have also suffered the betrayals and attacks of the Arab regimes which like the House of Saud seek first and foremost to protect their own class interests.

Clearly therefore to believe that Zionism can be replaced because the rulers of the US wake up one day to the plight of the Palestinians is absurd. Or to try and pretend that the USA supports Israel, not out of its own economic and political interests but because of some strange romantic attachment, bolstered by a hidden conspiracy or Jewish vote, is absurd. But Moshe’s response is to engage in an exercise in abstract and abstruse logic. An undefined socialist revolution, in the abstract, will somehow win over enough Israelis in order that the present Zionist ruling class will be overthrown. It isn’t much of a strategy!

And there is no doubt that in order to threaten the existence of Zionism one will need to threaten the interests of the Western imperial powers and their Arab satraps. But there is a world of difference between a social revolution in the Arab East and a socialist revolution. The latter has never occurred, except temporarily in Russia under exceptional consequences. The former has occurred regularly and the question is who leads it.

There is no doubt that Arab masses are capable of rising up against their rulers and threatening the West's grip on the region's oil. It is in this, imperialism's achiles heel in the Middle East, that Zionism's continued existence has to be placed.

Moshe fails to see that we must start from where we are not where we would like to be. A 2 State solution is today the property of the Right. Partition would be a defeat for working class unity and it would not solve the national question either. In short it is inherently reactionary, a means of allowing Israel to pretend that granting political or civil rights to the Palestinians would undermine their claim to statehood. Those advocating a 2 State solution are effectively saying that until then the present Apartheid stalemate must continue and that equal rights are a subsidiary matter. Yet Zionist Apartheid is predicated on the ‘peace process’. And this is to leave out of the equation just what would be the form and status of such a state.

I am emphasising Moshe’s contribution because he is the main exponent of the Matzpen position which, I suggest, is little more than a refined version of the old Militant position of emphasising the need for class unity at the expense of issues that divide the class. In Ireland this led to an abstension from a real living struggle for Irish unity and British withdrawal. In Palestine it fails to recognise that, just as in Ireland and South Africa, the most racist and reactionary of settlers were its working class, so too in Israel. It is this which leads to Moshe suggesting that it is wrong to characterise Israel as an apartheid society because it seeks to exclude the indigenous population rather than to exploit them. As I’ve shown above, South African apartheid did both, to differing degrees.

Likewise the opposition to a democratic, secular unitary state of Palestine on the basis of equality of individual rights with allowance for language and cultural autonomy. Of course it was originally defined by the PLO as being based on equality of religious rights but the PLO’s formula was not immutable. What such a programmatic goal does is pose an alternative to the idea that there is some unexplained personal and national antagonism for the conflict between Arab and Jew. Indeed one of the myths of the present situation is that it is based on national conflict. It isn’t. The Zionist settlers didn’t come to Palestine in order to put down another nation. There was no such nation nor was it claimed as such. Indeed if anyone had asked the inhabitants of the time they would have been as likely to declare themselves Syrian as Palestinian. As Nathan Weinstock notes in his book ‘Zionism: A False Messiah’ (Ch. 5) ‘Paradoxically, it was largely Zionism itself which contributed to the crystallisation of Arab national feeling in Palestine, albeit, of course, unconsciously.’ This was an area of the world largely untouched by capitalism, a backwater of the Ottoman Empire.

In South Africa no one pretended that it was a national conflict as opposed to a conflict based on the needs of the settlers for labour power. In the Voortrek it was the ‘right’ of the settlers to be free from the authority of British colonial administrators, not least their ‘freedom’ to own slaves that led to the trek inland. The conflict may have taken a national form, but at its bottom it was the inherent dynamic towards expansion of any colonial society. The conflict was and is political and economic, about the creation of a settler working class and a marginal working class without rights. It is one of land and resources, with the inevitable racism that emanates from Zionism but national?

The suggestion that Israel is different because of the demographic parity of populations misses the point. The Militant Tendency (CWI) used to argue that in the north of Ireland the Protestant Shankhill Road had as bad conditions as the Falls Road in Belfast, if not worse, which entirely missed the point that even if there were actually no differences in conditions between the Catholic and Protestant working class, the belief by Protestant workers that the Ulster state was ‘our’ state was enough to create the basis for working class support for the Protestant statelet. Privileges of apartheid can exist even in a situation where there are no material benefits. Yet in Israel there are clear political benefits to a situation of Apartheid. Therein lies the problem.

And from this flows the artificial and false characterisation of settler colonialism as being divided into 2 different modes and is, I would argue, at the root of Machover’s abstract academic schema. Machover holds that there is the exclusionary/ exterminatory mode as in Australia and the USA which, in his words, ‘pulverised’ the indigenous population and then there is the exploitative mode of South Africa. These are false opposites. In fact all forms of settler colonialism embody the exclusionary and exterminatory.

In the north American colonies the Amerindians were largely exterminated, but in Canada the policies were very different - both exclusion on reservations and forcible integration as a section of the unskilled working class. As the indigenous population, in both the US and the West Indies were eliminated, so Black slave labour was brought in from Africa on the basis that it was cheaper to replace a human being who had been murdered in the sugar plantations than to keep them and their families alive at the Plantation owner’s expense, although slavery in the southern states of the USA was less brutal and genocidal than in the W Indies. This of course was the social and economic basis of the Atlantic slave trade.

In Australia there was a combination of extermination (Tasmania) and exclusion (& massacre of course) on the mainland. In New Zealand as a culmination to the Treaty of Waitangi a mixture of exclusion and integration, coupled with the fact that alone among the settler colonial states, the indigenous Maori were never defeated. In South Africa and North & Southern Rhodesia brutal labour exploitation was coupled with massacre and a colour bar.

This culminated in the Apartheid system which, although it is popularly held to have been pioneered by the Nationalist governments of Malan and Verwoerd post-1948 was in fact simply an outgrowth of the existing systems of land and labour discrimination. Apartheid as a formal political-economic system was designed to resolve the political problems of the white settler population (never more than 20% of the total) by excluding the Black population into the Bantustans, where they would exercise political rights, whilst at the same time using those very same homelands as a labour reservoir for the South African mines.

In fact it didn’t work out that way, not least because vast shanty towns like Soweto grew up where Black migrant labourers and their families lived. The periodic demolition of squatter camps couldn’t remove the fact of the Black presence in the heart of Apartheid but, unlike its Israeli counterpart, Apartheid was never able to hide the simple fact that it was based upon the denial of democratic and political rights to the Black majority. Whereas Apartheid and Segregation in South Africa and the White South of the USA explicitly enforced social segregation via ‘Whites only’ posters etc. Zionism has never been so crude. There are no ‘Jews only’ posters in the settlement towns of the Galilee yet there are no Arabs. Likewise there are no signs saying ‘Jewish children only’ in schools and kindergartens yet Israel’s education system is almost uniformly segregated into Jew and Arab.

Zionism has been more astute and clever than Apartheid ever was. Most discrimination is based upon one basic law, the Law of Return. The resort to specific references to Arabs in legislation is the exception not the rule. There was no ‘Jews only’ signpost on Highway 443 in the West Bank but that is what resulted in practice. Successful. And that is why one cannot afford to abstain from the key debate between supporters and opponents of a 2 State solution. 2 States is a mask which even the Israeli far-right under Lieberman and Netanyahu have begun wearing.
There are other forgotten examples of settler colonialism where there was a combination of both massacre, exploitation and of course theft of the best land. Rhodesia was one such example but it fell victim to the white settlers comprising about 6% of the overall population and a growing guerrilla struggle. Kenya is another example. Here the whites were in an even smaller minority and they were somewhat choosy about the type of white settler they admitted. The riff raff were sent off to Rhodesia as this was a more aristocratic settlement, led by Lord Delamere and ensconced on the White Highlands. The decadence and sheer obliviousness of the settlers as to the Black population of the country they resided in were memorably captured in the film White Mischief. But here too exclusion and exploitation went together and with the Mau Mau uprising, massacres and the creation of the Hola concentration camp.

A Palestinian Bantustan would provides the ideal excuse for a retrenchment of Apartheid. It would of course enable the ‘transfer’ of Israeli Arabs into such a ‘state’ and it is clear that any such ‘state’ would be at the mercy of its neighbour – economically and militarily. There is no possibility whatsoever of a genuine Palestinian state arising in the West Bank. It is a pipe dream. It could only be a series of mini-cantons, broken up by settlement blocs built for exactly that purpose. What kind of state is it where the borders, airspace and sea are controlled by its neighbour? As I argued at the time of Oslo, what is really involved is withdrawing the prison warders from inside to outside the prison whilst at the same time replacing the Israeli faces of the police and military with those of the Palestinian faces of the Dahlans.

But Israeli settler colonialism does not fit into a single niche. Labour Zionism was founded on Jewish Labour, Land and Produce, but from the start the private sector in Israel was opposed to this and found its political expression in the opposition of the Revisionist Zionists. In the wake of the 1967 Occupation, thousands of Palestinians became the drawers of water and the hewers of water in Israel. It was because Israeli rulers woke up to what was happening that the use of Palestinian labour was restricted, though even today at least 50,000 workers from the West Bank work in Israel and have part of their wages stolen by Histadrut. And now Israel’s policy makers want to be rid of the migrant labour they brought in from Asia as they too desires to make Israel a land of settlement.

It is unsurprising that the proposed mass deportations have attracted the support of Britain’s fascist British National Party! In an article ‘Israeli Interior Minister: Illegal Immigration Threatens Israel’s Jewish Identity’ the BNP’s new Euro MP and old neo-Nazi, Andrew Brons explains that ‘The Israeli immigration minister Eli Yishai has announced his firm intention to deport all illegal aliens because their presence “damages the state’s Jewish identity, constitute a demographic threat and increase the danger of assimilation.'

Israel too has not avoided the exploitation of cheap labour, be it Palestinian or migrant labour, because this too is a feature of settler colonialism. And also most other states, where there was complete victory for the settlers, Zionism was unable to ‘resolve’ its problem. Aided by the biblical myths of a holy land (Eretz Yisrael) whose borders are infinitely adaptable, Zionism has not been able to finally defeat the indigenous population. It followed the Palestinians into Lebanon and with the thinnest of pretexts (the attempted assassination of its Ambassador in London, Shlmo Argov) launched the 1982 war. Further wars in Lebanon and Gaza followed, none of which were successful. Israel is fated to continue its relationship with the Palestinians and Arabs because even in their wilder dreams, no Zionist seriously believes they can conquer the Gulf states. However it consolidates its grip on the region, it is forced to come to terms with the indigenous population, be it Palestinian or Lebanese.

If there is any form of settler colonialism that Israel best approximates too, it is Ireland. Indeed British imperialists such as Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill were quite clear about the parallels with Ireland, as was the first Military Governor of Jerusalem Sir Ronald Storrs in his autobiography Orientations. Israel was a ‘little loyal Ulster in a sea of hostile pan Arabism.’ A look at the Lloyd George war cabinet which gave birth to the Balfour Declaration and the Zionist settlement demonstrates that the most avid supporters of Zionism were also the most ardent settler colonists such as Jan Smuts, the South African Prime Minister and Lord Milner, South African High Commissioner and the real author of the Balfour Declaration. These were the people, led by Lloyd George, who decided that Partition in Ireland best served Britain’s political and strategic purposes. Likewise Partition in Palestine was to serve the same purpose and those who argue in favour of 2 States are in essence advocating a repartitioning of Palestine.
It is too crude and schematic to neatly divide settler colonialism into just 2 categories when all the examples given are of both tendencies.

Suffice to say Moshe was correct therefore to say we have argued and debated this over the past 30 years. But in his reply Moshe also added that despite having debated the question for so long, I still ‘did not understand’ the points he was making. In fact I understand them only too well and it is one of the few times that I have known Moshe to display any academic and intellectual arrogance. But perhaps he was rattled by a personal attack on him by fellow panel member, Sami Shalom Chetrit, who called Moshe a political ‘dinosaur’. In fact Chetrit, a Professor from New York and of Moroccan Jewish origin, posited the now fashionable theory that the Misrahi Jews are equally oppressed as the Palestinians and therefore this is the form that a future alliance must take.

One expects people who put ‘Professor’ before their name to be able to make a coherent contribution to debate, to organise and systemise their ideas. At times it seemed little more than a drunken ramble, a hopping from one topic to another with points randomly made. There was nothing in the way of an analysis, mere assertion.

What in effect Chetrit was doing was advocating the cause of one element of settler society, the Ashkenazi, over the Misrahi/Oriental. The fact is that although the working class in Israel primarily consists of the Oriental and Arab Jews, they form what in the USA would have been called the ‘poor whites’ or in Ulster the Protestant working class. The Oriental/Misrahi section of Israeli Jewish society is the most reactionary and racist section of Zionist society. And Chetrit, who informs us that he used to be a bitter critic of the Oriental Jewish party Shas now sees it as some form of vehicle for change.

Shas is one in a long line of religious and ethnic parties in Israel, all of whom have capitulated to Zionism. United Torah Judaism, formerly Agudat Yisrael, was first formed as an anti-Zionist political formation at the beginning of the last century. Likewise Lubavitch was originally anti-Zionist. All religious parties have adapted to Zionism because that is, to be blunt, where the money and power lies. Shas in 2010, although Chetrit never referred to it, joined the World Zionist Organisation, in other words it has gone further than any other religious orthodox party. It is a party, based on the Oriental Jewish vote, which has been steeped in corruption. To imagine that it contains within it the seeds of some revolt is to indulge in wishful thinking. It is an academic exercise, divorced from reality.

But if this was a rag-tag session with one panel member insulting other members, who in turn insulted those who disagree with them in the audience, then it was I guess the ideal introduction to the final session of the Conference. I omit what was the best and most successful session on the Palestinian left and literature which was an excellent introduction to the different Palestinian poets and writers.

The final session was chaired by Gilbert Achcar and included Areen Hawari, Issam Makhoul, Jamil Hilal, Jamal Zahalka and Muhammad Jaradat. As with the contribution from Leila Khaled and Asmi Bishara, Jamal Juma was unable to come because, in the wake of his recent arrest and detention his passport had been taken by the thugs who pass for Israeli security. Again he looked uncomfortable and video really is a second best but a good indication of the reality of the ‘only democracy in the Middle East.’

As with all sessions there were too many speakers. It took nearly an hour for all the speakers to conclude speaking and that left little time for the audience. And then Achcar demonstrated that chairing is probably not among his greatest talents since he made a complete hash of the timing, as well as calling those known to him in the audience. He allowed the panel to come back after 6 contributions from the floor on the premise there would be a further round of questions. Instead he seemed to go to sleep as Balad member of the Knesset, Jamal Zahalka, was allowed to meander on for 20 minutes without saying very much. The result was there was no further audience participation in what was supposed to be a ‘left’ conference.

My feeling was that this conference, and it cannot be stressed enough that there has been very little debate about strategic imperatives in the Middle East and Palestine on the left that isn’t a restating of positions, never fulfilled its promise. For example what exactly is going to come out of the conference apart from videos (maybe) of the sessions? Is there any attempt at continuing where it left off? Equally importantly, there was no real attempt, which one might expect at a left conference, to engage the audience and encourage discussion. Plenaries are a good way of bringing different perspectives together but to have no workshops where people can break down into smaller groups was an enormous mistake. It meant that there was an academic elite giving us their perspectives and indulging in the normal preening one expects of these people and on the other hand an audience which was expected simply to lap it up. Hence why we had the theatrics of Chetrit, the diatribe of Sa’di, the academic arrogance of Machover coupled with some abysmal chairing.

It was a conference which promised so much but in the end delivered so little, not least in terms of marrying activism and political analysis. Hence why BDS got but a look-in. It would also have been good, since there were pretensions (John Rose!) that this was an academic style conference, for speakers to have produced papers in advance and for them to have been either physically available or via the net.

Tony Greenstein

No comments: