The "Cowardice" of AWL on the Gaza War

Submitted by dalcassian on 5 February, 2009 - 2:35 Author: Eric Lee/Ian Sternberg/Sacha Ismail/Sean Matgamna

Introductory note: This exchange was triggered by the article, The Socialist Party and the Gaza War: 'Socialism' as Evasion". The issues discussed are of more general interest. We invite contributions to the discussion.

From Eric Lee:
The "Cowardice" of AWL on the Gaza War

The most recent issue of Solidrarity features a number of articles about the conflict in Gaza. These articles do the AWL no credit.

Ira Berkovic's “Who speaks for Jewish people in Britain?” reports on the rallies organised by the Jewish community in Britain without once mentioning the politics of those rallies. That's extraordinary. More than that, it's dishonest. As even the BBC reported, these rallies called for peace and an end to Hamas terror. They were not the mirror-image of the pro-Hamas rallies which – as you reported elsewhere in Solidarity – did call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

But to be fair, I think the comrades of the AWL may not be deliberately misrepresenting the Jewish community rallies. I think the article actually reveals the depth of your ignorance. You don't actually know what the rally was about -- because you weren't there.

AWL members were busy getting their signs torn up at pro-Hamas rallies – rallies whose political leaders proclaimed slogans with which you completely disagree. But a rally whose demand was 'Yes to peace, No to Hamas terror' was somehow of no interest to you.

Which brings me to Sean Matgamna's article in the same issue. Sean blasts the Socialist Party for concealing its real views (the two-state solution) for fear of being unpopular, or provoking anger from pro-Hamas demonstrators. The question of political courage runs like a red thread in this article and Sean correctly writes that “the socialist who is afraid to be unpopular who cannot stand against the tide, or even the stream, is a poor little specimen indeed.”

Reading these articles, as well as the extensive coverage of the AWL's brave efforts to get its message across to pro-Hamas demonstrators in Sheffield and elsewhere, I cannot help but wonder why the AWL doesn't present that same message to a 15,000 strong rally in London? (And a decent sized one in Manchester as well.)

One would think that with your “third camp” politics, you'd be eager to hold up your placards with their “Down with Hamas, Down with the IDF” not only at pro-Hamas rallies, but even at pro-peace ones organised by the Jewish community?

But you don't. I wonder why. Could it be that the Socialist Party is not the only group on Britain's far left with a muddled message, lacking in political courage?

Eric Lee

From Sean Matgamna
We Are Not Israeli Nationalists

Eric Lee seems to have an identity problem! He confuses AWL and AWL politics with himself and his own politics. We did things and raised slogans that expressed our politics, and he blames us for not expressing his! Eric is an Israeli nationalist — a 'my country right or wrong' nationalist. We are International Socialists. We roundly condemn what Israel has just done in Gaza.

Living in a political world that is crazedly "anti-Zionist" and anti-Israel, of course we defend Israel's right to exist, try to explain the Israeli point of view, defend the "Two Nations, Two States" position, fight against the demonisation of Israel and "Zionism". During the recent war,we reminded people of the Hamas rockets. For that, the Kitsch Left denounces us as "Zionists", "pro-Imperialists", and all the rest of it. That I can understand. To the allies of Islamic clerical fascism, people "high" on "anti-Imperialist" delirium and vicarious Arab-Islamic chauvinism, that is what we are. They want Israel wiped off the map. But nobody who bothers to read what we write, as I assume Eric does, can think that of us.

In principle AWL supports the right of the Palestinians to fight and drive out the Israeli occupation forces, whatever the politics of those leading the Palestinians at a given moment. That is complicated in practice by the political programme of, in this case, Hamas, which proclaims the goal of destroying Israel, and by the fact that they are allied with other reactionaries in the Arab-Islamic world who proclaim the same programme. It is, however, our base-line position.

In fact, on the London demo, we did shout on the loudspeaker "Down with Hamas", etc. Because of the politics of the audience there, as in Sheffield, it was necessary and permissible to "bend the stick" a bit. But in cold and considered expressions of our politics we do not put an equals sign between Israel and the Palestinians, not even because Hamas is politically so very reactionary.

We say, and in "Solidarity" and on the demos we said, that Israel should get out of Gaza and West Bank. Immediately.

"Third Campism" has nothing to do with it! (Nor anything to do with Eric's position, either: he is decidedly in the Israel camp).

The Hamas rockets, etc., justified Israel in inflicting the massive carnage and destruction which it has just inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza? In the existing circumstances that idea can be sustained from one point of view only — that of a steel-clad, asbestos-lined, paranoia-infected Israeli national egotism.

Do you seriously want to argue that it simply doesn't matter how many Palestinians are killed? That there is not a grotesque, obscene, disproportionality in what happened in Gaza? That the widespread outrage against Israel was not justified? That it was a pure outpouring of anti-Jewish prejudice? I agree that we must fight the prejudice. International Socialists — "Third Campists", if you prefer that — must also know when to side with the Palestinians against the indefensible use of its military power by Israel.

Those who are not reflex Israeli chauvinists will know when not to side with Israel. For myself, I take a friendly attitude to Israeli nationalism, and, in retrospect, to the pre-World War II movement for a Jewish state, believing that of all peoples, post-Holocaust Jews have a right to be nationalist. That is not the same thing as Israeli chauvinism.... Or the same as proclaiming the principle "Israel — right or wrong!" How would you go about arguing that that is not your position, Eric?

Eric might like to comment on this point from the editorial in the last "Solidarity": "Politically [the war] arises out of the Israeli establishment’s refusal to work effectively to lay the political foundations of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Nothing less will do for the Palestinians. Nothing less will bring — or begin to bring, or could hope to bring — peace between Israel and the the Palestinians, and the rest of the Arab world.

"Above all else, it is Israel’s refusal, despite hypocritical words, to accept and actively work for that political settlement that sets the scene for continuing conflict. It wasn’t always so. For half a century most of the Arab states refused to recognise Israel. It is so now that the Arab League (of states) proposes a settlement that would on the Arab side involve recognition of Israel."

Eric might also tell us what is wrong with this statement in the Editorial:

"[The foregoing] discredits the Israeli nationalist case for the present war as the necessary means to stop Hamas rockets raining down on Israel. It renders all simple Israeli nationalist arguments from Israel’s inalienable right to defend itself indistinguishable from outright Israeli chauvinism. Other, better, ways to the same Israeli end are possible and more likely to bring a long-term peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Ways that give to the Palestinians the just settlement to which they have an inalienable right: their own state, side by side with Israel."

Not the least of Eric's confusions is that he confuses Israeli chauvinism with Third Camp Independent Socialism. We are internationalists. We defend nations and national movements, when we do, as Internationalists, as International Socialists, or else we are not socialists at all.

Sean Matgamna

From Ian Sternberg
I'm Not An Israeli Nationalist Either!

I can't speak on behalf of Eric Lee ( although I think that We have very similar views on Israel/Palestine & Socialism in general ) but I would like to respond to some of the points that Sean Matgamna raises .

Sean says that Our position is Israeli Nationalist . I am not an Israeli Nationalist - I am a Zionist .
Zionism is the National Liberation Struggle of The Jewish People . Like any other National Movement Zionism is comprised of people from different classes & political opinions - to categorise all Zionists as " Nationalists " or
" Chauvinists " seems to Me to be rather unhelpfull - if people like Me & Eric ( Who want peace with the Palestinian People & Support the Struggles of The Israeli & Palestinan Trade Union Movements ) are " Chauvinists " then how would Sean categorise the Extremist Settlers , or Rabbi Meir Kahane & His Kach Party , or the Religiously-Coercive Orthodox Rabbis ?

Sean says that We Support Israel as " my country right or wrong " - the problem that I have with His point is that I don't think that Israel has ever been wrong ( in the major sense of always having to defend itself from threats to it's existance ) to warrant condemnation . Israel has always been right - so it should always be supported !

I Primarily Support Israel because It is a Democracy - and so My Support for It is really no different than My Support for any other Democracy under attack from Totalitarian forces . For example : I Support the National Liberation Struggle of The Karen People Who have been fighting for Freedom from Burma since World War Two .

I don't see a contradiction between being a Zionist Supporter of Israeli Democracy & being an International Socialist .
As an International Socialist I Support Working Class Struggle throughout The World - I Support Israeli & Palestinian Trade Unions - where's the contradiction ? ( and so does Eric as the Editor of Labour Start )

You say that The AWL " supports the right of the Palestinians to fight and drive out the Israeli occupation forces " . I would point out that the last 2 wars ( 2006 & 2009 ) were provoked by Terrorists operating from territory that Israel has already left - so where does " occupation " come into it ? The Second Lebanon War was caused by Hezbollah attacking a jeep patrolling the border & kidnapping/murdering two soldiers , Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by use of a tunnel dug under the Gaza border , last weeks ceasefire was broken by a bombing of a vehicle on the Gaza border ( and IDF Soldiers were then fired on when They bravely ran forward to help Their injured Comrades ) The Terrorists like to hide behind Women & Children as Human Shields but They are a lot less likely to stand and engage The IDF in open combat -
As somebody Who knows His Irish History I'm sure that Sean will recognise the cowardly behaviour of HAMAS in the old Irish Rebel Ballad : " Come out You dirty Black 'n' Tans - Come out and Fight Me like a man ! "

The basic problem with the position of The AWL is that although it supports a Two-State Solution it seems to lay the majority of the blame for the failiure of the peace process at Israel's door . Whatever Israel's attitude to the negotiations were - it was The Palestinians Who reverted to Terrorism in 1996 and rejected Ehud Barak's proposals in 2000 and launched the 2nd Intifada with all the Suicide Bombings that occured . Israel needs to be sure that The Palestinians have seriously returned to peaceful negotiations before it will risk any further territorial withdrawl - but if The Palestinians do then Israel is ready to return to a generous diplomatic relationship . As a National Council Member of The Zionist Federation - I have met many of the Israeli Political Leaders & IDF Commanders who have always stressed Their desire to return to peaceful negotiations with The Palestinians - I totally believe the sincerity of what They said .

From Sean Matgamna
Non-Chauvinist Zionists Should Condemn Israel's Gaza War!

In reply to Ian Sternberg, let me repeat something I said in reply to Eric Lee: “Do you seriously want to argue that it simply doesn't matter how many Palestinians are killed? That there is not a grotesque, obscene, disproportionality in what happened in Gaza? That the widespread outrage against Israel was not justified?”

The fundamental political case against Israel's Gaza war is that there were better, far better, alternatives open to Israel: really and actively accepting the Two States position, negotiating a broad framework of settlement with the Arab League, something that seems now to be possible, and, within that framework, sorting out Hamas and its rocket war on Israel. Israel's government chose instead to pulverise Palestinian society in Gaza. Instead, Israel went on a hi-tech Hamas-hunt from the air that could not but produce massive civilian casualties. For that reason alone the Israeli Government should be condemned.

You say: “The basic problem with the position of The AWL is that although it supports a Two-State Solution it seems to lay the majority of the blame for the failiure of the peace process at Israel's door.”

Yes, we do lay the “majority of the blame” on Israel. Why? Because now — not throughout its long interaction with the Palestinians and other Arabs, but now — Israel is immensely strong, and therefore could shape events. To blame everyrthing that has happened since 2000 of Prime Minister Sharon's “provokative” visit to the Temple Mount is, I think, to be simple-minded. But Israel was and is strong enough to create a new political framework by way of a “Land for Peace” agreement with the Arab League, and the establishment of a Palestinian state that would satisfy most Palestinians.

But leave the big political framework aside. A war that inflicted such death and destruction as Israel inflicted on a people so mis-matched militarily against Israel that they were virtually helpless and without defences, is a war that socialists must condemn, if they are socialists in more than name

I'm not making light of the rockets. During the war “Solidarity” reminded people of the Hamas bombardment and what it meant for the Israelis living in fear because of it. But that is simply nowhere near the scale of what Israel has just done to the Palestinians of Gaza.

The disproportion is so great that the only possible justification for it is rampant Israeli chauvinism, the belief that one dead Israeli is more important than a couple of hundred dead Palestinians; the belief that the horrors of ineffectual Hamas shells dropping on Israel are more important than the vast death and destruction inflicted on the Palestinians in the 3-week Gaaza war.

I wouldn't treat dumb animals the way Israel has just treated the Palestinians. Would you? Would Eric Lee? Would the Israeli Prime Minister?

The fundamental case against the war is the political one outlined above. Even if this were not so, socialist sympathisers with Israel would surely recoil from the terrible carnage and destruction, say, “there must be a bettter way than this”, and condemn the onslaught on Gaza — unless they had let themselves be infected with Israeli chauvinism. Wouldn't we? Shouldn't we? Shouldn't you? Shouldn't Eric Lee?

I find it hard to imagine circumstances in which a war in which the opponents are so mis-matched, such large-scale civilian casualties are certain, and the human cost to the Palestinians so much greater than the human cost of the Hamas rockets on Israel, could be justified on anything other than chauvinist grounds.

And for all the carnage, Hamas has not been destroyed and it is still capable of launching rockets on Israel. Politically Hamas has beenn strengthened amongst the Palestinians, and so, it seems, has the Israeli right: for them, the war stopped short of victory and the destructionn of Hamas and the Israeli Government is at fault for that.

You say: “I am not an Israeli Nationalist - I am a Zionist... to categorise all Zionists as
"Nationalists " or "Chauvinists " seems to me to be rather unhelpfull...”

Where did I do that? In what I understand as the fundamental sense of the word, support for a Jewish state, I am a Zionist. I think Israel has the inalienable right to defend itself.

It would have a right to wage war, irrespective to the cost to its opponents, if that were the alternative to being conquered and its people put at the mercy of the conquerers. Zionism, surely, is nationalism, but not thereby to be condemned. I wrote that post-Holocaust Jews had good reason to be nationalists. Not all nationalists are “my country right or wrong” people, still less are all Zionists narrow chauvinists. But people who support unjust and unnecessary wars and the sort of strong-power bullying of the Palestinians which Israel has just inflicted on the people of Gaza — they are chauninists.

You say: “Israel has always been right - so it should always be supported!” You use “right” so loosely that it is irrelevant to what concerns us. Israel is perfectly “right” to want to stop the Hamas rockets. Solidarity explained all this during the war... It does not follow, that what it has just done is thereby “right” (for the reasons I've outlined above).

You ask, where does “Occupation” come into it in Gaza, which Israel left in 2005. You are being sophistic: Israel occupies the West Bank. The people of Gaza see themselves as Palestinians...

Calling them “terrorists” as if that settles everything is to pull the fashionable ideological wool over your own eyes. Here “terrorism” is just a name used by the strong against the military tactics of the weak. AWL condemned the homicide bomb campaign in Israel for pretty much the same reason that we condemn Israel in Gaza — because they targeted civilians (Israel didn't target civilians, but that makes no fundamental differennce to the consequences of what it did in Gaza).

Yes, Hamas did hide behind civilians, probably wanted the Israeli attack to kill civilians and thus build international hostility to Israel. The Israeli Government is thereby absolved of responsibility for what happened? That idea only stands up if you can reasonably argue that Israel had no possible alternative. Would you argue that?

Finally, you say: “...I'm sure that Sean will recognise the cowardly behaviour of HAMAS in the old Irish Rebel Ballad : " Come out You dirty Black 'n' Tans - Come out and Fight Me like a man ! " Ian, there are some splendid Irish revolutionary songs — even the National Anthem, which was written by a socialist — but the horrible thing you quite isn't one of them! It's about the ravings of a drunken braggart, when there were no Black and Tans to respond to the challenge. In fact it was the Black and Tans and their political masters who talked about the Irish army, a guerrilla army, as “cowards” shooting from ambust, as a mere “murder gang” and as ...”terrorists”. But the Irish paralell you falsely invoke points to two serious issues.

Talking about the “cowardice” etc of Hamas is beside the point (and scarcely true).

And the history of modern Ireland suggests that for the forseeable future, even after the setting up of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, there will be “rejectionists” amongst the Arabs. They may do things such as the IRA did in in the 1950s, when it mounted guerrilla raids from the South into Northern Ireland, planted bombs, shot policemen, hijacked trains and tried to wreck them, etc. A political settlement with all or most of its Arab neighbours would give Israel allies against “rejectionist” guerrillas and terrorists. But there will most likely be terrorism, more or less intensive, by poeople based in the surrounding states, for a very long time.

Israel should, socialists shouild want it to, respond to such things by going berserk against its neighbours, as in Gaza, against wherever the rejectionist terrorists are based? That would mean that no peace, no relative normalisation, no peaceful co-existence with its Arab neighbours will ever, forseeably, be possible for Israel.

Israel should not have done what it did in Gaza.... Socialists, including socialist Zionists, should not support it in what it did there.

Sean Matgamna

From Sacha Ismail

I think Sean has pretty comprehensively demolished Ian's arguments.

One point of disagreement, however.

Clearly I don't share the far left's holy terror at the word; but I don't see how socialists can call themselves Zionists. I am for Israel's right to exist, but that doesn't make me (or you) a Zionist, any more than being for Palestinian independence makes us Palestinian nationalists.

We shouldn't go along with the 'anti-Zionist' outcry, but nor should we use language which potentially blurs the opposition to nationalism - as opposed to national rights - that all of us in the AWL agree is essential for international socialists.

Sacha Ismail

From Sean Matgamna
Is AWL "Zionist"?

One one level it's a sterile argument, whether we are “Zionists” or not. I defined what I understand by it — support for a/the Jewish state. That describes me, and though Sacha is entitled to reject the label for himself, I think it describes him.

I didn't say AWL is Zionist, because I know that other comrades, like Sacha, would disagree. I said it in reply to Ian Sternberg in order to put my criticism of the Israeli war in our, and not the Kitsch-Left's, political framework. I counterpoed Zionism in general, meaning support for a Jewish state, to the “nationalism” I see in Ian Sternberg and Eric Lee.

We, AWL, are International Socialists, not any sort of nationalists; we do however, from our own point of view, champion national rights and national freedom for those who want it — here for the Palestinian and the Israeli Jewish nations.

Yet there is a point. The word “Zionist” is used in the Kitsch-Left as a near equivalent of “racist”. It encapsulates the demonisation of Israel and of Jewish people who support it. It sums up the grotesque, and originally Stalinist, misrepresentation of both the history of Zionism and of the Jews in the Twentieth Century, on which the “absolute anti-Zionists” erect their toxic nonsense. It is a tool of ideological terrorism on the “left”. The cleanest and simplest way of dealing with that is to accept it, in its proper, original, meaning, and wear it as a badge of political sanity.

The example of Eleanor Marx strikes me as a good example: when the “anti-Alien (anti-Jewish) agitation was at its most intense, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, she told the East End workers, who knew her as their supporter, that she was “a Jewess”. One of her grandfathers, Karl Marx's father, was a Jewish “convert” to Christianity, seeking the civil liberties such a “conversion” brought. She had less reason for adopting the name of the targets of the anti-alien agitation than supporters of a Jewish/Zionist state have for calling themselves “Zionists”. But, let's agree to differ on it, Sacha.

Sean Matgamna


Submitted by AWL on Tue, 24/03/2009 - 16:02

"Let's agree to differ," says Sean in our discussion on whether socialists who support Israel's right to exist should call themselves "Zionist". On one level, fair enough, since he sharply distinguishes between what he calls "Zionism in general", ie support for Israel's right to exist, and Israeli nationalism. But on other levels, this is an important discussion.

Zionism is, unavoidably, a nationalist ideology and movement, linked to the Israeli-Jewish-Hebrew-speaking nation.

Like all nationalism it is multi-faceted and multi-coloured - thus we have the left-leaning, pro-Palestinian Zionists of the "Courage to Refuse" soldiers' movement, as well as the various right-wing Zionisms which dominate official Israeli politics. Moreover, this is the nationalism of a people who experienced an intense and murderous historical trauma less than seven decades ago and, surrounded by hostile states, are afraid it might happen again. Nonetheless, it is still nationalism!

I recently drove round the country on an AWL-organised tour with Tamar Katz, a 19 year old Israeli woman jailed last year for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. At her first meeting, she was asked whether she regards herself as a Zionist. She replied that she does not, since she wants her country - the Israeli "Jewish" nation, whose right to exist she unambiguously champions - to be fundamentally "democratic, not Jewish". She was very nuanced in her critique of Zionism, but she was also clear that, as a socialist, she is not a Zionist.

Clearly it is not the job of British socialists to lecture Israelis, or any other people, on how to oppose their ruling class' nationalism. But it is our job to make solidarity with those who do. In this context, Sean's use of "Zionist" just seems a bit odd.

Should we use the word to subvert the bigotry of those on the left who demonise Zionism, as Eleanor Marx declared she was "a Jewess" in order to confront anti-semitism in the East End? The analogy is basically flawed. There is nothing wrong with being from a Jewish background, any more than there is something wrong with being from an Irish, French, Muslim or any other background. We should not demonise Zionism, but from a socialist point of view, there is something wrong with being a Zionist, ie an Israeli nationalist.

From this I hope it is clear that I am not accusing Sean of being an Israeli nationalist, but of using "Zionist" in a way that makes little sense.

Sacha Ismail

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