Arabs, Jews, and Socialism: Note (2019), Introduction (2019), Preface (1989)

Submitted by martin on 20 June, 2019 - 12:10 Author: Martin Thomas, Sean Matgamna
Arabs, Jews, and Socialism


This is an expanded version of a pamphlet, “Arabs, Jews, and Socialism”, produced by Workers’ Liberty in 1989. The main addition is the debate between Jim Higgins (former National Secretary of what is now the SWP) and Sean Matgamna in 1996-7, which was the major sustained public exchange of polemics in that period. Some errors and omissions in the 1989 edition have been corrected.

The pamphlet should be read together with our 2002 pamphlet (expanded edition 2016), “Two nations, two states”, and in particular with two articles in it. One is “Marxism and the Jewish Question” (of which an earlier version was published as “Trotskyism and the Jews” in Workers’ Liberty 31, May 1996, and a yet earlier version as “Trotsky and the Jewish Question” in Socialist Organiser 266, 10 April 1986). The other is “The Stalinist roots of left ‘anti-Zionism’”, first published in Workers’ Liberty 10, May 1988.

The bulk of the pamphlet collects the debate in Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Solidarity) from the mid-1980s. There was a big campaign against us - as being part of “the world Zionist connection” - by Gerry Healy’s “Workers’ Revolutionary Party”, which would fall apart in 1985, but in the early 1980s still had wide outreach through the newspaper Labour Herald, 1981-5. That forced us to begin to deal more systematically with “anti-Zionist” antisemitism on the left. We had already in the 1970s condemned ″left-wing″ harassment of Jewish student societies on university campuses. Around 1985 there was a larger spate of that sort of harassment. A debate in which we would come to renounce the formula of a single “secular democratic state” as a way to deal with the conflict in Israel-Palestine and adopted a ”two states” policy had also started inside our organisation in the late 1970s.

Activists and friends of Workers’ Liberty need to know about those debates: if a revolutionary socialist party is to be “the memory of the class”, as Trotsky put it, then revolutionary socialists must for a start have an informed collective memory of our own debates and political developments.

Another reason for putting this content back into circulation is that it represents the only sustained debate on the would-be Marxist left on issues of Israel, Palestine, Zionism, and antisemitism for a whole epoch, in Britain at least. We invited a wide range of contributors to join the debate in Socialist Organiser, including, as the reader will see, some very hostile to our political direction. The debate was untidy, with many loose ends, but it was a debate.[1]

The policies counterposed then against “two states” were generally that of a single “democratic secular state”, or that of a socialist union or federation of the whole Middle East. Sometimes the two policies were combined. Advocates would explain that the “democratic secular state” could be brought into existence only by a socialist revolution across the whole region. Thus, problems with the formula were covered because it could be assumed that when it was implemented a powerful socialist consciousness would already prevail on all sides.

Since then “absolute anti-Zionism” (“anti-Zionism” which means an absolute condemnation of Israel as such) has less and less been accompanied by explicit argument either for the “secular democratic” (unitary) state or for the “socialist federation”. Such slogans sit ill with alignment with Hamas (founded only in 1987, and a relatively small force for some time after that) or Hezbollah. Often now “absolute anti-Zionism” is expressed only as a negative attitude of root-and-branch hostility to Israel and “Zionists”, without any definite positive programme.

The debate mostly took place in the period between Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the “first intifada”, the mass uprising of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, which started in December 1987 and pushed the PLO into officially adopting a “two states” policy. This was both a period when hostility to Israel in Britain was at fever-pitch, and a period where there was a big peace movement within Israel and some sort of a left in the PLO. (That left had in fact pioneered a “two states” policy back in the 1970s).

A factor often discussed in the debate was the intermeshing of populations of the Occupied Territories and Israel, notably the fact that, at the time, a large proportion of Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories worked in Israel, commuting daily. Border-crossing restrictions since then, especially since the “second intifada” started in 2000, have reduced that commuting drastically.

The years following the debate saw the Oslo Accords of 1993-5, which opened at least tentative possibilities of progress to “two states”. In 2000, however, negotiations between the PLO and Israel broke down. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, meeting unofficially, produced a full-fledged “two states” plan in 2003, and there were some efforts to restart negotiations for a few years after.

The main direction of events since 2000, however, has been a strengthening of right-wing and chauvinist forces on both sides, and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Israel dismantled Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005, and withdrew, but maintains control over its water, electricity, and telecom supplies and (together with Egypt) a blockade on the territory.

Among the Palestinians, Hamas has grown, the left has dwindled, and the Palestinian Authority (dominated by the Fatah faction) has been increasingly reduced to a corrupt agency for managing aid money and keeping the bits in the West Bank which it administers quiet. In Israel, the right-winger Binyamin Netanyahu has, as we produce this edition, just completed ten years as prime minister and won a further election. He has expanded the settlements, used brutal but successful military force for Israel’s short-term security, and got both rapid economic growth and increasing social inequality within Israel by harsh neoliberal policies.

In April 2019 Netanyahu declared plans to annex to Israel “Area C” - more than 60% of the West Bank, including the Jewish settlements, and encircling the 160-odd patches of land which make up the Palestinian Authority’s Area A and Area B. If he goes through with it, those plans will create still further obstacles to any democratic or even liveable settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All the more important for the left to work out what the principles of democracy and national rights mean in this situation, and to fight for them, even against all the odds.

Martin Thomas

[1] The Mandelite Fourth International had something of a debate in the 1970s, between supporters of the “secular democratic” single-state formula, and partisans of the slogan of a socialist federation of the Middle East with self-determination for minorities like the Kurds and Jews, a slogan which implied “two states”. However, that debate did not circulate much in Britain, it petered out, and since then that international network has drifted to a “destroy Israel” stance:


Sean Matgamna

Here I will give a brief account of the evolution of the ideas of what is now AWL on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and of those of us whose ideas these were.

Before Stalinism replaced communism, communists rejected the Zionist project on three main grounds. It was a "utopian nationalism". It misdirected Jews away from the class struggle in the countries in which they lived. Its goal could be achieved, if at all, only in collaboration with the British (League of Nations mandate) authorities in Palestine, and by siding with Britain against the Arabs. (Britain occupied the territory, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, from 1918. It was only at the beginning of British rule that Palestine became an entity separate from Syria).

The Communist International was “assimilationist”. Until the end of the 1920s it was nevertheless for free movement, and therefore for the right of Jews to go to Palestine. In the 1930s, when the Zionist project became linked to the urgent need for a Jewish refuge from the Nazis, Trotsky and his comrades argued that logistically, if for no other reason, small and underdeveloped Palestine simply could not provide a refuge for all the Jews who now needed it. The fate of the Jews of Europe would be decided by the class struggle in Europe; it was inseparable from the fate of the revolutionary workers' movement.

At the time of his death in August 1940, Trotsky was studying the Jewish labour movement in Palestine. Pamphlets and books on the questions were found on his desk. He wrote in 1932-3 seemingly in support of Jewish migration into Palestine. “There is no such thing on this planet as the idea that one has more claim to land than another”.

That cuts both ways, but it was the Jews who were being kept out of Palestine and desperately in need of a place to go. The Communist International's demonisation of Zionism - as distinct from politically opposing and fighting it - began with the pogrom that broke out in Palestine in 1929. The small and mainly Jewish Communist Party in Palestine and the Communist International first defined it as the anti-Jewish pogrom movement it was.

Then the Stalinist Communist International decreed that it was in fact an anti-imperialist movement and should be endorsed and supported. It was decreed that the leadership of the Communist Party of Palestine had to be Arabs (few members were). The Stalinists were now against free Jewish migration to Palestine. In parallel, at the same time, the British authorities severely limited Zionist land purchases, and continued a process that incrementally rescinded the Balfour declaration. In the late 1930s, strict limits were placed on Jewish migration to Palestine - 75,000 over five years. The British authorities imposed those limits rigidly during the war and the great massacre of Jews by the Nazis and local antisemites in the Nazi-occupied countries, and until the foundation of Israel in 1948 allowed the Jews in European displaced persons' camps to migrate.

The Trotskyists rejected the Stalinists’ 1929 turn on Palestine. Max Shachtman wrote in The Militant, 1 October 1929: “Not every movement led by spokesmen of an oppressed nationality is a revolutionary movement. It is a lamentable fact that at the present time the Arab movement is directed by unconcealed reactionaries... They are against all Jews as Jews. They set up the reactionary demand for the ‘restriction of the Jewish immigration into Palestine’...”

Trotsky pointed to antisemitism in the Moscow Trials of 1936-8, in which men like Gregory Zinoviev and Karl Radek, who had been known by such names for decades, were given their original Jewish names. The Trotskyists remained in favour of free Jewish migration until the mid 1940s. In the 1930s, throughout World War 2, and after, the US Trotskyists advocated that the US open its doors wide to Jews who needed refuge. On the Jewish movement for independence at the end of World War 2, the two main currents into which Trotskyism had split in 1940 developed important differences. The self-named "Orthodox Trotskyists" - those who would go on to see the expansion of Russian Stalinism in the war (though they criticised it severely) as positive and progressive - and the Heterodox, those who saw Russia and its replicas in many countries as a horrendous new form of exploitative class society, had differences in their approach to the "Jewish Question" after the war.

Both advocated opening the gates of the US to the Jewish survivors then confined in displaced persons' camps in Europe, some of them made-over old concentration camps. The Orthodox did not now advocate free Jewish migration to Palestine, and they did not support the Jewish guerrillas fighting the British in Palestine. The Heterodox did both. In the 1948 war, neither current backed the Arab states. The Heterodox regretted the partition of Palestine, but defended the right of the Palestinian Jews to have a state of their own, and their right to defend that state, i.e. themselves. Thereafter there was de facto recognition of Israel by the Orthodox. The formula of a Socialist United States of the Middle East, with autonomy for minorities such as Jews and Kurds, came into use among the Orthodox.

The Orthodox wrote very little about Israel or the Palestinians; the Heterodox a lot more, much of it very critical, as in Hal Draper’s articles on the ill-treatment of Israel’s Arab minority (1956-7). What is now the common coin of most would-be Trotskyists, the equation of Zionism with Nazism and hyper-imperialism, is found in the work of Lenni Brenner and his political siblings and offspring. It first took shape as a deluge of Stalinist propaganda between 1949 and 1953. That was spread in the Stalinist press across the world - in Britain by the Morning Star, then called Daily Worker - from the USSR and Eastern Europe.

From 1949 to Stalin's death in 1953, show trials of leading Stalinists mainly of Jewish origin were held in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland indicting them as Zionist-imperialist agents. "Zionists" (in fact, long-time leading Stalinists) were hanged in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. At his death Stalin was preparing a big anti-Zionist show trial in Russia. It would have been the visible part of a mass purge and rounding-up of Jews, and the killing of we can’t know how many of them. Stalin's successors stopped it. In 1956 antisemitism would be among the crimes for which his reforming successor Nikita Khrushchev posthumously indicted Josef Stalin. All the Trotskyists in 1949-53 identified the anti-Zionism of the Stalinists for the antisemitism it was, and condemned it.

In 1956 Israel joined Britain and France in invading Egypt, which had nationalised the Suez Canal. The Trotskyists condemned the invasion and helped mobilise people against it. Nobody said Israel had forfeited the right to exist because of it. In the 1950s and 60s, the Trotskyists looked on the Egyptian-controlled PLO leader Ahmed Shukeiri's enunciations of the slogan under which Egyptian armies had entered Palestine in 1948 - "drive the Jews into the sea" - as reactionary ravings with which they had nothing in common. [1] In 1967 Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Day War.

The West Bank, designated for the territory of a Palestinian state alongside Jewish Israel in the UN's 1947 partition plan, had been annexed by Jordan, and Gaza had been under Egyptian rule. Israel conquered them in 1967, reuniting 1948 Palestine, but under Israeli rule. An Israeli offer of those territories in exchange for normal relations was rejected by the Arab states, none of which at that point recognised Israel. (Egypt and Jordan would, years later). Israel for the first time entered into close alliance with the USA. The shift to what is now the common left-wing position did not happen all at once. The main movement was towards acceptance of a formula adopted by the PLO to replace "drive the Jews into the sea": a secular democratic state in all of Palestine. The shift to present-day full-throttle absolute anti-Zionism did not take place until after the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

Egypt made a surprise attack on Israel during a Jewish religious festival. For a while it looked as if Israel would be overrun. Israel won. The Arab states then used oil price rises as a weapon and triggered economic crises, with high inflation, in Europe and the USA. Now there was a shift in the Western media to sharp criticism of Israel and hostility to it. That was paralleled by sharpening hostility on the left, for instance in the press of the SWP-UK. It was still far from the present level of hysterical anti-Zionism, which would require another SWP intensification of "anti-imperialism" and “anti-Zionism” in 1986-7.


AWL began in late 1966 as four people, two of whom, Rachel Lever and Phil Semp, were Jewish in background. We had to sort out what we thought about Israel at the time of the June 1967 war in the magazine Workers' Republic, which Rachel Lever and I produced in association with an exile Irish political organisation, the Irish Workers' Group.

In common with all Orthodox Trotskyists, we saw the world as experiencing a great "colonial revolution", which in some cases, China for example, led to the creation of states modelled on Russia. The Middle East was part of that. There were progressive Arab nationalists (Egypt, Iraq, Syria) freeing themselves from imperialism, and reactionary Arab regimes (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the emirates, etc.) who opposed that progressive nationalism. Israel was on the side of the Arab reactionaries against the anti-imperialist Arab nationalists.

We were (in retrospect: the war was over by the time we were producing the magazine) for Israel's defeat by the Arab nationalists. We were for a Socialist United States of the Middle East and autonomy for Jews and Kurds. We did not understand ourselves to be for Israel's destruction. Any "drive the Jews into the sea" nonsense we dismissed as vicious reactionary ravings.[2] We shifted in the moving consensus of the left, in response to Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza, to acceptance of the new PLO slogan, secular democratic state. It seemed to offer justice to both Palestinians and Jews. The idea that it did was deeply stupid, but it was a stupidity that quickly conquered most of the revolutionary Marxist left. And, once adopted, it had an anti-Israeli logic of its own. It delegitimised Israel. It preached a seemingly benign alternative to Israel.

The benignity was only seeming. Delegitimising Israel was the political reality. When people in politics are being a lot more stupid on some issue than usual, you ask the question: what political and psychological function does this advanced level of stupidity serve for them? Here, it served to allow us to side with the beaten and oppressed Palestinians and the anti-imperialist Arabs and at the same time do something like justice to the Jews, who would (we persuaded ourselves) have equal rights in a secular democratic state. The Jews would not have national rights; but neither would the Palestinians. It seemed a just compromise. A liveable solution. But how do you get to that? We didn't examine it too clearly. We were content to fudge and go on fudging, our whole complex of thinking set and fixed in place by hostility to what came to be Israel's colonial rule in the Palestinian majority territories in the West Bank and Gaza.

We chose to inhabit a culpable delusion, a political fiction. We were for the defeat of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.


I had been religious, but I have no memory of direct animosity to Jews. I’d read a Catholic retelling of the Old Testament and thus had some vague idea of ancient Jewish “history”. I had had to persuade Rachel Lever - who had been a five year old child in Jerusalem during the Arab siege of 1948 - to the view we took on the 1967 war. Later, "secular democratic state" made most sense to us as the solution to a complex conflict. I was no less, and possibly more, vehemently hostile to Israel than the other comrades. Politics had to rule; but on a certain level I was unhappy to be thus in conflict with most Jewish people.

Midway between 12 and 13 years old, I had moved with my family from the town of Ennis in the west of Ireland to Manchester. For 15 years I lived in the Cheetham Hill Road area, which then had a large Jewish population. In 1947 a pogromist crowd, triggered by the British-Jewish conflict in Palestine and led by Mosley fascists, had surged up Cheetham Hill Road from the nearby city centre, throwing stones, breaking windows, and attacking people they thought were Jewish.

Similar things happened in Leeds and Liverpool at that time.

My arrival in England involved me in a precocious instant politicisation as an ″anti-imperialist″. I was in the land of the ancient enemy. I had in my head the story of Ireland's long history of oppression and resistance to it. I had heard my mother's and father's stories of the Irish war of independence, the Black and Tan war. My mother had been in her late teens then, and living on the west coast of Clare near Milltown, in one of the flashpoint areas of the conflict.

I had learned to share my mother's love of the old songs, many of them nationalist. I remember only one notable incident from that time in my life, when I refused to stand for “God Save The Queen” at a Halle Orchestra concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. I generalised from Irish history. The world was divided into oppressed people and oppressors, and I identified with the oppressed. “We” were of the oppressed, and the oppressed were of “us”.

For instance, I picked up that there was a war in Algeria against French rule, and knew exactly where right and wrong was there, which side I was on, though I knew little else about it and had difficulty finding the information about it which I sought. I was 15 at the time when Britain invaded Egypt and occupied Port Said over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. I was not yet a communist: it would be the better part of a year before I learned to see communism as the liberating Russian Revolution, and not as it seemed to be epitomised in the horrid old men ruling Russia. But I sided with Egypt. I remember how someone at work summed up what I was arguing for, to a third person who had just joined us: "He thinks that if he agrees Eden [the British prime minister] has a right to invade Egypt, then he will be saying that England was right in Ireland".

The Irish paradigm of national oppression of peoples and resistance was a serviceable one in the mid 20th century. It didn't misdirect me about "the Jews", either, then or now. I learned in some detail about Hitler's massacres of Jews. Excerpts from or early drafts of what became The Scourge of the Swastika, by Lord Russell of Liverpool, were serialised in the Daily Express in mid 1954. [3] "The Jews" were oppressed people, too. Like us, but more so. There was, naturally, a certain degree of identification.

Jewish migration north from Cheetham was well underway, but everything I became involved in as a teenager, the Young Communist League, the local Labour Party youth organisation, the clothing industry, was heavily Jewish. The conversation of oldsters in the CP tailors' and garment workers' union group, for instance, would often centre on what some of their rivals and sparring partners in the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen, Ajex, had said or done. The local leaders of the small Trotskyist group I would join, Harry Ratner and Bert and Greta Karpin, were of Jewish background.[5]

My first job after leaving school was in a small furniture factory, and my first adult partner there, standing across from me as we fed raw timber back and forth through a sawing machine to make planks, was a Polish Jew whom we called John. He was a survivor of the Hitler camps, then only a decade in the past. A very small, quiet, subdued man. I had enough sense to resent it and see it for what it was when another adult wood machinist whom I'd been moved on to serve told me that John was "a mean, tight bastard".


Vehement against Israel after 1967 as the oppressor of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza I was; but slowly, after a long time, towards the end of the 1970s, I was assailed by doubts about the "secular democratic state" formula. Because of the strong commitment to the immediately oppressed, the Palestinians, I had a lot of entrenched resistance, and conditioning and self-conditioning, to break out of. But it finally registered that "secular democratic state" simply didn't make sense. It couldn't possibly mean in reality what we wanted to it mean and had convinced ourselves it did mean: equality for Jews and Arabs. And eventually it clicked that it wasn't good for the Palestinians, either.

A "secular democratic state" demanded Israeli agreement. Since Israel would never agree to dismantle its state and to put itself at the mercy of a hostile Arab world, it meant the prior conquest of the Israelis. At the culmination of that conquest, what was left of the Israeli Jews would not have and could not have equality in a "secular democratic state". The practical meaning of "secular democratic state" was the same, more or less, as that of "drive the Jews into the sea". "Secular democratic state" was "drive the Jews into the sea" for squeamish dimwits, or people made stupid by politics. Immediately it meant delegitimising Israel, saying that it had no right to exist, still less to defend itself.

All that is obvious and very simple. But for us, our ideas buttressed by emotional siding with the Palestinians, the oppressed, it was not simple and least of all could it be obvious. That sort of mechanism is possibly a factor with people now, except that the level of antisemitism geared round the “secular democratic state” formula is a great deal higher. The strong resistance meant that it took a long time for this to establish itself clearly in my head.

When it had, I sought separate discussions with each of the people in the organisation who, I thought, had more than a superficial knowledge of the Middle East, half a dozen people perhaps. I couldn't get anyone to agree with me. Rachel Lever rejected the argument vehemently. I couldn’t unpersuade her. When I raised the question with members of the leading committee I met with incredulity as well as incomprehension and dismissal. The comrades did, however, by their blocking out of the problem I saw and the issues I raised, succeed in letting me convince myself that I was right. Years later I asked one of them, who tries to be rational in politics, why he couldn't then see the problem I raised. He answered: "I followed the Jewish comrades". That is, it was easier to stick to the comfort of a blatant political fiction. As I had done for a long time.

A lot of people in the wider revolutionary left "followed the Jewish comrade" - Tony Cliff - into de facto antisemitism. If not "secular democratic state", then it had to be either the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza, or two states.

In a letter to our paper, Workers' Action, in 1974, a comrade, Neal Smith, had advocated two states soon after the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine had started to advocate it (as a stepping-stone to a "secular democratic state"). I was among those who opposed him. In fact, though, "two states" was only a more developed, fleshed-out, more concrete version of the old policy - socialist United States of the Middle East, with autonomy for Jews and Kurds. It had the advantages of accepting the right of Israel to exist and defend itself, and of working outwards from the idea of an independent Palestinian state. It was no more than what had been stipulated in the 1947 UN resolution. For me it had been a circular movement from autonomy to "two states".

The other comrades, Rachel Lever and Phil Semp, who also had started with Jewish autonomy, stuck with "secular democratic state". (Phil Semp eventually agreed with two states, but by then he had dropped out of political activity). I had to accept that I couldn't shift the others, and I think on one level I was content with that. I had the same strong inhibitions about seeming to side against the Palestinians that the others had. The truth, I think, is that I wasn't unhappy at being a political prisoner on the issue.


The other realisation also had to work its way through slowly: that the destroy-Israel slogans, postures, intentions, and activities were in fact the bitter enemy of the oppressed Palestinians - the living Palestinians, as distinct from the symbols of Arab defeat in Palestine, of Muslim subordination and loss of territory, and, for the left, of anti-imperialism.

The Israelis had Israel, a sovereign state; the Palestinians had nothing. Any proposed "settlement" that demanded the destruction of Israel - whether it be called "drive the Jews into the sea", "from the river to the sea", Muslim Holy War and reconquest, or "secular democratic state" - condemned and condemns the Palestinians to an indefinite purgatory. Its realisation required the collapse of the will of the Hebrew nation to live and defend itself. Once the US-Israel alliance was established, from 1967, it required an epochal change in the balance of world power. It left the Palestinians without redress while they waited for the change in Israel’s ability to defend itself and in the world balance, and entirely dependent on the good will of whatever Arab big powers might conquer Israel. The most seemingly radical slogans and demands, expressed in the obsession of Arab-nationalists and Islamists, and sections of the anti-imperialist left, with aspiring to destroy Israel, did not at all serve the living Palestinian people.

"Siding with the oppressed", in its political expressions in the various destroy-Israel slogans and programs, was not siding with the oppressed. It was just siding against Israel - and siding with Arab, Islamist, and "anti-imperialist" intransigents and irreconcilables for whom the Palestinians were a cipher. Bringing down Israel, not raising up the Palestinians, was its core drive. In our political tradition, the answer to the question whether siding with the oppressed demands of us that we accept the given policy at all times of the oppressed (in fact, of their leaders), is, no, it does not. Our basic politics demands of us that we fight the chauvinism of the oppressed, too, and promote workers' unity.

We'd have given that correct copy-book answer to that question, in the late 1970s - in Lenin’s words, “we fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation” - but in practice it was tremendously difficult for us to disentangle and disengage. When others on the ostensible left did begin to differentiate from the majority view of Palestinian leaders, it was to side with Hamas against Fatah. Hamas were better anti-imperialists (that is, more tunnel-visioned) than Fatah, you see. Some on the left rejoiced at the victory of the clerical-fascist Hamas over the quasi-secular Fatah in the Palestinian elections of 2006, and the Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007. It was the reduction of their politics to something hard to distinguish from political lunacy.


In 1981 our group, by then called Socialist Organiser, fused with another Trotskyist group, the Workers' Socialist League.

Led by Alan Thornett, it was a breakaway from the Workers' Revolutionary Party [WRP] of seven years earlier - the WRP as it was before its leaders sold themselves to Arab governments and it became the crazily antisemitic thing it was at the end. In the discussion preceding the amalgamation, both organisations were for a "secular democratic state". That would be the position of the new organisation. No problem there. In fact the fusion brought together people who adhered to a common slogan, "secular democratic state", but gave it radically different political, historical, emotional, and moral content. The Socialist Organiser people found that the Thornettite "secular democratic state" was not quite theirs, and so from their side for our new comrades. The Socialist Organiser people did sincerely (albeit stupidly) believe in equal rights for the Israeli Jews in the future "secular democratic state".

The questions I had been raising about the "secular democratic state" may have made some comrades more aware of that and strengthened their need to assert and believe that "secular democratic state" meant equality. The Thornettites understood "secular democratic state" as meaning Arab self-determination in the "secular democratic state" and Jewish subordination. It was a contradiction in terms - a joint Jewish-Arab "secular democratic state" which was also an Arab "secular democratic state” and gave Palestinian Arabs self-determination. In fact, they had a far less effete and more realistic idea of what "secular democratic state" meant (and could only mean) than the Socialist Organiser people did. It was as with the different understandings now of the "two states" position on the left. Some who notionally are for two states, the antisemitism-fomenting Morning Star for example, rage against and demonise Israel and Zionism. Their extreme and in many cases hysterical hostility to Israel points not to their notional politics - two states - but to an adoptive Arab-Islamic chauvinism and support for the conquest and destruction of Israel.

So it was with the Thornettite adherents of the "secular democratic state". Some of them even proposed the slogan: “Drive the Zionists out of the labour movement”. This very soon became obvious. I used the open and incipient clash to get people to think about the issue and about our politics on it. The contradiction between the two versions of "secular democratic state" would be the locomotive of radical change in the understanding of a lot of comrades.

In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to get at the PLO military forces there. Lebanon was an unstable confessional state set up in 1943, based on rules for power-sharing between Muslim and Maronite Christian Arabs. The PLO presence destroyed the delicate confessional balance. The Maronites allied with Israel. In September 1982 they massacred Palestinians in two refugee camps, Sabra and Chatila, in territory within the overall control of the Israeli army under Defence Minister Ariel Sharon. An Israeli enquiry would later apportion some of the blame to Sharon and his colleagues.

The anti-Zionist left instantly gave all the responsibility and blame to Israel. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan at Christmas 1979 had triggered what came to be called the Second Cold War, and that was the international background to the conflict in Lebanon and to how the left perceived it. A tremendous hysteria gripped the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli left. Our organisation too. It could be argued, I think, that Socialist Organiser was the worst of the left press in that period on Israel and the Middle East. Part of it was style.

Alan Clinton, who was by this time Chief Whip of the ruling Labour group on Islington council, under Margaret Hodge, suggested - in the paper - that Israel should never be referred to as Israel. So it was screaming headlines about "the Zionists". Another problem was that John Lister, joint editor of the paper, a thoughtless and conscienceless hack who saw his place in the political world as that of Alan Thornett’s amanuensis, wrote most of the stuff on "the Zionists". It was very unpleasant, and more than a little crazed.[5]

Less than a year after the fusion, the organisation had begun to pull apart. The group was united in opposing Thatcher's Falklands War (April-June 1982), and for the first six weeks also largely united in rejecting any support for Argentina, which had invaded the Falkland Islands, 400 miles from Argentina and with a British population. Then the Thornettites discovered that the Falklands War was a major event in the world struggle against imperialism, and that the fascistic military junta ruling Argentina was now "in our class camp" (alongside Russia).

Siding with Argentina was the common Orthodox Trotskyist response (of the Mandelite Fourth International, for instance). Our side refused to accept what we saw as ridiculous fantasy politics. The hysteria about Israel in Lebanon merged into that anti-imperialist “high”. Denunciation of "the Zionists" at meetings became even less inhibited and more of a gut-level hostility to "the Zionists" than a pro-Palestinian position. The organisation came very close to imploding. It didn't, but we had reached the political turning point on the Middle East.

The National Committee, formed by amalgamating the committees of the two previous organisations, was big, about 40 members. Into this committee, with the Middle East on the agenda, Alan Thornett brought an Israeli Jewish socialist, a member of the Workers' League in Israel. He spoke for the outright destruction of Israel. He himself had, like Tony Cliff in the mid 40s before him, done the logical thing and left. Everybody in that room, except for one other comrade (Clive Bradley) and I, was for a "secular democratic state", and yet the two halves into which the meeting divided faced each other across a great political chasm.

There were those who saw "secular democratic state" as involving equality for Jews and Arabs in the future political settlement, and wanted it to mean that; and those for whom it meant primarily the destruction of the Jewish state, by war and conquest. I drove wedges into the gap between the two versions of “secular democratic state". “Secular democratic state” must mean equal rights for Jews! Half the meeting believed that. I remember the excitable Alan Clinton beating the table when I was talking about equal rights for the Israeli Jews, chanting "No rights for Jews! no rights for Jews!" Alan was a decent man (fallen among municipal reformists, and soon to leave us for them), and I didn't believe that he was antisemitic on a personal level. He meant no rights for Jews in Israel-Palestine, in the "secular democratic state".

Those who had "secular democratic state" in the old Socialist Organiser version now saw themselves in the mirror of their formal political co-thinkers, and some of them experienced a crisis of political identity. The equipoise of the politically-hybrid slogan, “secular democratic state”, was shaken. "Secular democratic state" could no longer provide an emotional refuge from thinking about the real situation and the real choices. They had to think about the issues without the comfort of a nonsensical fantasy solution.

The Middle East was also discussed at a big conference of Socialist Organiser supporters in mid-1982, at the height of the hysteria. People talked about "secular democratic state" as "self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs". I took the floor to argue that "secular democratic state" for Jews and Arabs implied, and had to imply, Jewish and Arab equality. It couldn't mean self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs any more than self-determination for the Israeli Jews. Each people, the Jews and the Arabs, had to be taken into account by the other side.

I remember two things from that long-ago meeting - the waves of hostility I evoked; and two youngsters close to the front of the meeting, one of whom I think was Jewish in background, nodding emphatic agreement with what I was saying.


The group was being dragged through the libel courts - or John Bloxam and I, on behalf of the group, were - by the WRP which, among other things, accused us of being part of a world Zionist conspiracy stretching all the way into Thatcher's and Reagan's cabinets. I was able in Socialist Organiser to publish a reasonably comprehensive attack on their antisemitism. It had to be done within bounds, but it included a criticism of our own antisemitism too. I wrote about the slogan “drive the Zionists out of the labour movement", which had been raised - by some of our own comrades.

I became joint editor of Socialist Organiser in June 1983, and Clive Bradley later became a staff writer. The hysteria about "the Zionists" had abated a little by then. We began to publish such things as a critical assessment of Lenni Brenner's rehash of Stalinist antisemitic "anti-Zionism" of the 1949-53 period. Jane Ashworth had become student organiser in mid 1982, at the height of the anti-Zionist agitation. She came to agree with me on “two states”, and began to influence some of our younger comrades on the question. The Thornett group had fallen apart bit by bit in the course of the political battles, with groups and individuals peeling off, and Socialist Organiser parted company with the rump in mid 1984. The organisation’s mind changed over time and we formally adopted a two-states position in 1985.

We allied with the Union of Jewish Students against the "ban Zionists" kitsch-left in the colleges, and that was educational for some comrades too. We worked to enlarge what we saw as our island of socialist sanity in the swamp of left absolute anti-Zionism and barely disguised antisemitism. Already in the 1970s, and again in the mid 1980s, we opposed attempts to harass and ban Jewish student societies, seeing the advocates of the bans for what they were - "leftwing" antisemites and boneheaded "anti-Zionists".


The present-day antisemitism, or absolute anti-Zionism, of the ostensible left does not of course exist in a vacuum, and it is not the start of something new in history. Uninhibited Nazi-style and simply Nazi antisemitism has been cultivated inside the Arab countries, without a break as far as I know, after the crushing defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Across the world antisemitism has become "anti-Zionism". The left has inherited and developed the Stalinist "anti-Zionist" antisemitism of the years 1949- 53 (some of which can be traced to Stalinist ideas in the 1930s). Events and the passage of time have moved the ostensible left onto strange new ground.

The agitation now for the "right of return" is in literal terms a species of racism, or of “gene-ism”. Of the six million Palestinians designated as "refugees" who should collectively "return" to and repossess what is now Israel, perhaps 200,000 were alive in 1948, that is, about one in thirty. (Or, on another estimate, as few as 30,000). The number of Jews in Israel who were there in 1948 must be about the same. In due course we will reach the point where none of the designated refugees are actually refugees from 1947-8. Do the six million Arabs have a right to displace - that is what "return" means, inescapably - a similar number of today's Israeli Jews, who have grown up in Israel and (in many cases) whose parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents were born there? What is that right to displace based on? The six million are descended from certain people, and that gives them rights stronger than those of the people born there?

Racism is used as a swear-word now, a bludgeon, a demagogic obliteration of grades and nuances in the continuum from affinity to nationalism to chauvinism to warfare against a nationality to what is properly called racism. But what is the Palestinian "right of return", the superior claim over the existing Jewish Israel of the six million "refugees" who are mostly not refugees but descendants of refugees, based on, if not genetic continuity, "race"? Guarding the proportions here, it can be truly said that the absolute anti-Zionist "left" unites the Stalinist political antisemitism of 1949-53 with aspects of the older, racist-genetic, antisemitism. I repeat: that is what the superiority of the claim to the territory of pre-1967 Israel of the designated refugees, over the community who live there, comes down to: genes.

And of course Western history is saturated with the many strands of another antisemitism, Christian antisemitism, beginning with the assertion that "Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, did it" - the condemnation to death of Jesus Christ - "at the desire of the Jews". (That is how it was put until recently in the Catholic Catechism of Faith) [6].

That Christian antisemitism also inspired the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, forged by the secret police of Holy Mother Russia a hundred years ago, and circulated in vast numbers and many languages since. The Bible story has the Roman governor Pontius Pilate speaking to the Jewish crowd: "When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children”.

On the heads of those who in 1948 won Israel's right to exist against people marching under the injunction to drive the Jews into the sea, and on their heads of the generations of their children, is the fault that deprives Israel of historical legitimacy and makes the claim of those born and living in Israel forever inferior to the claims of generations born elsewhere. Those who now get gratification and joy out of uninhibitedly crusading against the blood-guilty "Zionists" continue a foul tradition of demagogic campaigning and spurious self-righteousness and hate-blinded antisemitism.


[1] One measure of how things stood in the early 1960s: I debated Israel with a Zionist, another member of the Labour Party youth organisation in Cheetham, Manchester. My main argument, as I remember, was that the kibbutzim were utopian socialist colonies and that therefore Israel offered no viable socialist model. Irish in background, and therefore “anti-imperialist”, I would have been more aware than average, not less so, of the sort of "colonial" question that would dominate discussions of Israel later. There was little general awareness of Palestinian refugees, and certainly no putting all the blame for their continued plight as refugees on Israel alone.

[2] Worrying that a line in the Workers' Republic article on the Six Day War might be taken to imply the wish or the threat of destroying Israel, I travelled in a dinner hour across Manchester from Salford to Cheetham, where Workers' Republic was being produced on a stencil duplicator, to double-check. Memory suggests that we re-did the page.

[3] I’ve checked: it was part of a big campaign against creating a new German army.

[4] In the later 1950s, I even found Jewish-background youngsters in the YCL who sang Irish nationalist, Irish Republican, and even Catholic-sectarian songs, led by the branch secretary Terry Whelan, who was making a bit of a name for himself as a folk singer - "Johnston's Motor Car", “Kathleen Mavourneen”, and a darker song, of which all I can remember are the lines: "Early one morning, on my way to Mass, I met a bloody Protestant and killed him for his pass". No, I didn't approve.

[5] See for example "Zionism red in tooth and claw", John Lister, Socialist Organiser 91, 1 July 1982, and "Zionist policy: genocide", Andrew Hornung, Socialist Organiser 89, 17 June 1982.

[6] A good-hearted neighbour had me learning the catechism early, and I could recite that at the age of four or five. It was similar with all Christians brought up in that tradition.

Preface (1989)

This pamphlet contains a large selection of articles and letters about Israel and the Arabs, and how socialists should see the Jewish-Arab conflict, which were published over a number of years in the weekly Marxist newspaper Socialist Organiser.

In the last few years Socialist Organiser has reassessed and revised its attitude. Until mid 1985 - though with decreasing conviction - SO held that socialists should advocate the replacement of Israel with a secular democratic state in the whole of pre-1947 Palestine, within which Jews and Arabs would have equal citizenship. In September 1985 we brought a long process of reassessment to a conclusion by deciding that, desirable though the creation of a joint Jewish-Arab state in Palestine might be, it was impossible that it could come into existence by peaceful agreement in any foreseeable future, and that in practical politics the ″secular democratic state" slogan functioned as a cover for a programme of conquest and subjugation of the Jewish nation in Israel by the Arab states. On any realistic account, the first stage would have to be such a conquest - and after that inevitably bloody conquest of the Jews, there would be no second stage in which Jews and Arabs would live together as equal citizens.

We found ourselves having to go through a prolonged and painful reassessment because, in line with the general drift of would-be Trotskyist opinion in the 1970s, we had too uncritically accepted the "secular democratic state″ programme adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the late '60s. We did so under the moral pressure to side with the defeated and oppressed. We understood the formula in our own way as meaning complete equality for Jews and Arabs in the new Palestine - this diverged appreciably from the PLO's own version, in which the secular, democratic state would be an Arab state in which the Jews (or some Jews) would have equality of citizenship and religion.

The sad truth is probably that we were less concerned with thinking things through rigorously than with adopting a consistently militant and uncompromising stand of support for the oppressed: and we were not too keen to probe beyond the superficial plausibility of the "secular, democratic state″ programme and its seeming promise to do justice to the Palestinians and reconcile Jews and Arabs on a higher plane.

With us, as with many on the left now, something more was involved than mere obtuseness and political and moral cowardice. The Palestinian Arabs are terribly oppressed. Though arguably they have suffered far greater massacres at the hands of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanese Christian and Muslim militias than from the Israelis, the root problem for the Palestinian Arabs has been their displacement by the Israelis

Therefore it is easy to lapse by way of proper moral indignation into a vicarious Arab revanchism and nationalism. But something more specific was a factor in our (and others') obtuseness on this question: the fact that it is impossible to do full retributive justice to the Palestinian Arabs without doing a grave injustice to the Jewish nation that has grown up in Palestine. No full restoration of the Palestinian Arab position is possible without driving out the Jews.

Where no satisfying solution exists, there is scope for fantasy and vagueness. The "secular, democratic state" is a fantasy solution - the promise that the lion will lie down with the lamb, that those who have fought each other for at least seven decades will integrate into a harmonious unit, either by the Israeli Jews voluntarily abandoning their own nation-state in order to share the disputed territory or by the Arab powers conquering the Jews and then instituting the sort of equality of nationalities that exists nowhere in the Middle East.

If you rule out the 'secular, democratic state' as a fantasy, then the only possible and equitable solution is conciliation and division of the disputed territory between the two peoples.

The articles and letters reproduced here look at the Arab Jewish conflict and its history from a number of radically different viewpoints. They are all reproduced exactly as published. The pamphlet also contains two items not previously published in Socialist Organiser: a contribution (written at the time, by me) to the discussion on whether Socialist Organiser can now be called "Zionist", which, for reasons of space, balance, and decent editorial restraint was not published in the paper; and a brief comment on a contribution to the SO discussion by Lenni Brenner (author of 'Zionism in the Age of the Dictators' and 'The Iron Wall') which nobody bothered to reply to when it was published.

As is to be expected in a prolonged discussion in which people's ideas evolve, change and develop, the reader will find many ragged edges. One thing that jars with me particularly is the unqualified definition of Israel as simply a 'racist state' in pieces I wrote as recently as two or three years ago (or some five or six years after I personally had begun to argue that Israel had a right to exist). Now Israel's treatment of the Palestinian Arabs is racist, and it deserves to be called racist. The problem is with classifying the entire entity of the Jewish state as 'racist'.

Ideas and attitudes that anywhere else would be readily identified as nationalist (and in Israel's case, it is a nationalism surrounded by murderously hostile other nationalisms) are in relation to Israel classified as 'racist'. This misuse of 'racism' to describe Israeli-Jewish nationalism (or chauvinism) is only another way of denying that the Jewish state has a right to exist and asserting that it is an illegitimate nation.

There are other examples of unevenness and confusion, and of residual ideas and attitudes jostling with newer ideas and attitudes which, rigorously worked through, imply their opposite. All this is mortifying. But none of us have denied that we were immersed for a very long time in the general quagmire of confusion on these questions which chokes and distorts the thought processes of the left.

We have been trying to work our way out of it as best we can. We collect these articles under one cover in the hope of helping other socialists to work their way out.

Sean Matgamna, 1989

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