Israeli Socialism and Anti-Zionism: Historical Tasks and Balance Sheet


A talk delivered at the conference “The Left in Palestine/The Palestinian Left,” School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 28 February 2010

This talk is dedicated to the memory of my late friend and comrade, the Arab Marxist Jabra Nicola (1912-74).

The terms “Right” and “Left” as used in Israel are misleading: they do not denote a socio-economic position (as they do elsewhere, especially in Europe).  They denote attitude to Israeli policy towards Palestinians, towards war and peace.

I will avoid this confusing usage.  I will talk not about “left” but about socialism.

My theme is the correlation — if you like, the dialectical relation — between the struggle for socialism and the struggle against Zionism.

My main theses are two sides of one medal:

1.  In Israel the struggle for socialism must be part of a regional struggle; and it necessarily implies a struggle to overthrow Zionism.

2. Conversely, a defensive struggle against the worst effects of Zionism can be waged on its own as a series of one-issue campaigns, by single-issue groupings; but Zionism cannot and will not be overthrown in this way.  It can only be overthrown as part of a socialist transformation of the entire region, the Arab East.  And it requires an organization set up according to this strategy.

1. Socialists must struggle against Zionism

I will be brief on this part of the thesis.  I will say just this: Capitalism is a structured world system, in which individual states have specific roles.  Israel is a capitalist country, but it is not “like any other capitalist country” (in fact, no capitalist country is like any other. . .).

Israel’s articulation in the world capitalist system is specifically as a Zionist state, a colonial settler state, with a regional role as a local enforcer of imperialism.

Therefore the struggle for socialism in Israel, against capitalism, necessarily involves resolute opposition to Zionism.  Thus for socialists in Israel opposition to Zionism goes beyond a purely moral position.  It includes, but cannot be reduced to, supporting Palestinian national rights and national liberation.

We in Matzpen understood this from our early days.  Matzpen was founded in 1962.  At that time, in the period between the Suez war of 1956 and the 1967 war, the Israeli-Arab conflict was at its least acute phase.  Matzpen was not formed specifically around this issue, but as a revolutionary socialist group.  However, it was clear to us that we had to confront the nature of Zionism as a colonizing project, and the Israeli state as a settler state.  It was clear to us that we must support Palestinian national liberation and the right of return.

You can find all this, for example, in a statement we published in May 1967: “The Palestine Problem and the Israeli-Arab Dispute.”

Before the 1967 war, when we expressed an explicitly anti-Zionist position and described Israel as a colonizing settler state, we were met with puzzled incomprehension.  I recall my former comrades in the Communist Party (from which I had been expelled in 1962) saying: “A Zionist settler state?  What on earth are you talking about?  This is just history!”

2. How can Zionism be overthrown?

I will say a bit more about the converse part of my thesis: what is required for resolution of the conflict?

As it is caused by colonization, resolution requires decolonization.  In this specific case, as the cause is Zionist colonization, what is required is deZionisation, overthrow of the Zionist project and its state.

I will argue that this can only be achieved as part of a regional socialist transformation — which requires an organizational setup designed for the struggle for socialism.  And I will further argue that in this long-term endeavour socialists in Israel have a crucial role to play.

Let me stress: what I am talking about is resolution of the conflict — as distinct from resistance against the current effects of Zionist colonization.  Such resistance is both necessary and possible, and indeed is taking place in Palestine/Israel as it is now, in the region as it is now, in the world as it is now.

This resistance is waged by the Palestinian masses and is aided by a whole range of single-issue solidarity campaigns and coalitions, in Israel, in the region and throughout the world.

Engaging in this struggle does not necessarily need to be conducted under a socialist banner.  To engage in it you don’t necessarily need to be a socialist.  It helps if you are a socialist, but you don’t have to be one.

But in my opinion it is an illusion to believe that this struggle by itself — even intensified as much as it is possible to intensify it — can lead to decolonization, deZionisation, overthrow of Zionism and its machinery.

“But why not?” I hear many people say, “decolonization has been achieved in many places, especially after the Second World War, in the second half of the 20th century.”  The most recent example is often cited: South Africa.

If South African apartheid could be overthrown within the present global order and without a socialist revolution, why not Zionist apartheid?

Here it is vital to make an observation that to Marxists is elementary and almost obvious, although it is usually ignored by those to whom colonialism is only a moral issue.

Marxists distinguish two types, two models of colonization and colonial settler states.  The difference is a structural one, regarding the political economy of the colonization project and the resulting settler state.

In all places where decolonization occurred in the 20th century, the settlers’ economy depended on exploiting the labour power of the indigenous people.  As a result, the settlers were a relatively small minority, far outnumbered by the indigenous people; and the settlers needed the indigenous people, without whose labour they could not exist.

Thus the conflict was an internal one, a quasi-class struggle within a common economy.

Despite superficial appearances, the balance of power was not favourable to the settlers; they could only impose their domination by using force — against the very people whose presence was vital to their political economy.  This was unsustainable in the long term.

In contrast, I know of no case of successful decolonization in places where colonization followed the other model: not exploiting the indigenous people as source of labour power, but excluding them, ethnically cleansing them.

Historically, in all such places the settlers became a new settler nation, whereas the indigenous people, if not exterminated, were pulverized or at best overwhelmed and marginalized.  At any rate, they were externalized.

Significantly, in the original US Constitution (Article 1, Section 2, Subsection 3), in counting the number of persons in each state of the Union, an African slave counted as three fifths of a person; but a so-called “Indian” counted as zero, a non-person.

The remaining indigenous people of Australia or North America, for example, cannot hope to reclaim their ancestral homeland.  The best they can hope for, and do indeed struggle for, is for equal rights and for the freedom to foster and preserve their old languages and traditions — but in a national framework dominated by the language and culture of the settlers.

We can say that in such places the conflict between settlers and indigenous people was in some sense resolved — but resolved in favour of the former, the settlers.

This is quite different from what happened in places where colonization followed the exploitative model.

This is why the analogy of South Africa is very misleading when applied to Palestine/Israel.

Of course, this does not mean that the fate of the North American and Australian aborigines necessarily awaits the indigenous Palestinian Arab people in this last remaining unresolved colonial conflict.  I do not argue such determinism.

However, we must be honest, even if this forces us to pessimism of the intellect.

This analytical observation should make us see that the danger is very real — including the danger of another major wave of ethnic cleansing.  This is why the defensive resistance struggle, and campaigns of solidarity with it, assumes an extreme importance and great urgency.

But as I said, this struggle by itself cannot lead to a just resolution of the conflict, to the overthrow of Zionism.

Within the confines of the box of Palestine, and within the existing regional and global order, the balance of power is vastly in favour of the Zionist state, which is backed by its imperialist senior partner and by the camp followers of that imperialist power, trading under the name “the international community”.

In this situation there is no realistic prospect of a combination of external and internal forces capable of overthrowing Zionism.

What is required for a just resolution is a major change in the balance of power, which can only be achieved by a major social transformation of the entire region of the Arab East.

Here I would like to point out one exceptional feature of this conflict, which gives the Palestinian Arab people a definite advantage, an asset, compared to all other colonized people that were subjected to ethnic cleansing.

In all cases that belong to this exclusionary type of colonization, the settlers formed a new nation.  In this Zionist colonization is no exception: despite itself, and in refutation of its own ideology, it resulted in the formation of a new Hebrew nation.

But what is exceptional, unique as far as I know, is that the indigenous people, the Palestinian Arabs, forged under the hammer blows of Zionist colonization a single national identity expressed in its own language — not the language of the colonizers — and modern culture, which has made notable contributions to world poetry, literature, drama, cinematography, music and graphic art.

What is the cause of this remarkable exceptional phenomenon?

I have no doubt that the main reason is that the Palestinian Arab people is a component part of a larger national entity: the Arab nation: a huge world civilization, with a rich cultural heritage, old and living.

Imagine: if the Palestinian Arabs, like other ethnically cleansed colonized people, had their own isolated languages (or even one language) spoken by no other people, their own isolated civilization and cultural heritage — then in all probability their identity would have been extinguished, overwhelmed or become an endangered relic.

Upon being exiled, the Palestinian refugees did not find themselves among foreign people speaking a foreign language.  And those who remained inside Israel could tune in to broadcasts in Arabic from nearby stations.  And of course, this was a two-way traffic.

The Arab regimes of the countries into which the Palestinian refugees were exiled did the Palestinians few favours; but among ordinary people, and especially radical oppositional forces, the Palestinians won a great deal of sympathy and solidarity.

This points towards the process that is capable of achieving a major change of the balance of forces, against Zionism and in favour of Palestinian rights.

In my opinion, the only way in which the balance of power can change to a sufficient extent to enable a favourable resolution of the Palestinian problem is a radical transformation of the region, which will overthrow the corrupt and repressive regimes, subservient to Zionism’s imperialist sponsor; and will unify the Arab East as a progressive entity, strong enough not to be cowed and terrorized by the Zionist state; and at the same time able to offer the Hebrew masses, primarily the Israeli working class, an attractive alternative prospect — integration in this progressive federal regional union.

Let me make it clear: external pressure by itself cannot lead to a just resolution of the conflict.  Zionism cannot be destroyed purely from the outside, even if and when the balance of power changes, so that Israel can no longer dominate the region.  Its Hebrew population is militarized, and Israel is a nuclear power.  It would resist to the death any purely external onslaught — not only its own death, but of many others.  It would commit the most horrendous suicide explosion in history.

But, given a change in the balance of power, the Israeli masses, primarily the working class, could be attracted by a generous offer from a progressive Arab East: “Since you can no longer dominate us, join us; give up Zionism and accept equal rights, including the right to express your national identity within a regional federation.”

In this way the Zionist state can be overthrown: this can be achieved from the inside — given favourable external circumstances.

It will be like an egg: hatched from the inside, but only if it is warmed from the outside.  Something must sit on it. . . .

Neither political Islam nor bourgeois Arab nationalism is capable of uniting the Arab East; and most certainly neither of them is able to offer the Hebrew masses an attractive internationalist alternative to Zionism.

This task can only be led by the working class.  This is the historical agent of regional transformation and unification that can provide the regional framework for resolving the Palestinian problem.

And in such a framework not only the Zionist state can be superseded; but also the box of a separate Palestine, created by the imperialist powers following the First World War, explicitly for the purpose of Zionist colonization — this too will be superseded.

3. The role of socialists inside Israel

This is clearly a long-term project.  And here I come finally to the bottom line: the crucial role of a true left, a socialist movement within Israel.

Its role is crucial because in order for the Hebrew masses to respond favourably to a transformed region, the ground must be prepared long in advance by a socialist movement inside Israel, working patiently on this project of long duration.  It is a long-term strategy.

Such a movement must be patient, as it cannot expect great success in the short or even medium term.  But it must prefigure the future in the present, and be organized in an internationalist way, without any national or ethnic barriers, and it must be allied to a regional socialist network.

Matzpen tried to do this.  It made a promising start and worked quite well from 1962 to the early 1970s.  Then it started splitting and eventually fell apart.

The splits were partly caused by a disease of the international left: sectarianism, a petty-bourgeois propensity to prioritize relatively small doctrinal differences above the need for unity.

But beyond this there was the objective difficulty of keeping together the two sides of the medal, which ought to be inseparable.

Some among us fixed their view on the long-term socialist aim and on the class struggle and — regarding Israel as a more-or-less “normal” capitalist country — neglected the immediate tasks of struggle against Zionism.

Others among us, conversely, lost sight of the long-term socialist aim, and engaged exclusively in anti-Zionist activity and solidarity with the Palestinian national movement.

And some vacillated between one partial view and the other.

Consequently, there does not currently exist in Israel a viable non-sectarian socialist organization embodying the above points.  What is left of Matzpen is some militants faithful to these ideas and a valuable heritage of analysis, found on the Matzpen website (see

Let me end with optimism of the will: one must hope that, given the present global crisis and discrediting of capitalism, some movement along these lines can be revived.

As I said, it is a project of long duration.  But it needs to start now.

The text of this talk was first published by Israeli Occupation Archive on 7 March 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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