An open letter to John Rees

Submitted by AWL on 30 April, 2002 - 10:49

Why does the SWP oppose "Israel out of the occupied territories"?
Dear John,

At the Socialist Alliance executive on 13 April, you and other SWP members voted against the slogan "Israel out of the occupied territories".
It was not, you explained, that you wanted the Israeli army to stay in the West Bank and Gaza; but the slogan was the wrong "priority".
Sure enough, it never appears in Socialist Worker headlines, though occasionally there have been formulas in the small print which suggest it.
Whatever socialists' different views about longer-term programmes for the Middle East, Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories is the obvious, simple, immediate-action demand for anyone concerned to end massacres like the one in Jenin. It is the demand of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It is the demand of Israel's anti-war movement.
In arguments over Israel and Palestine around the country, SWP comrades have reproached Solidarity and Workers' Liberty with being preoccupied with ultimate programmes rather than immediate solidarity with the Palestinians. The truth is rather the other way round.
It is we who have made the immediate-action solidarity slogan - "Israel out of the occupied territories" - our frontline message; you who have chosen to reject it.
Whatever you think about wider programmes, "Israel out" is realisable - not tomorrow, but after no more than shift in the political balance within the two peoples, helped by international solidarity, not an enormous qualitative shift in the whole region.
You want to raise more far-reaching demands? Fine. So do we. We advocate a socialist federation in the Middle East, with the right to self-determination of every nationality within it. You advocate a (single) "democratic secular state of Palestine" (merging Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs into a single state).
The difference, however, is that we do not dissolve our immediate solidarity into long-term programme, and you do.
The "democratic secular Palestine" slogan sounds benign, but its core is the advocacy of a single state in Palestine whether people like it or not. It means forcing the Israeli Jews under Arab rule. It means pogrom, not democracy.
Now "destroy Israel" is also obviously no sort of realistic immediate slogan. So what do you do? You are not candid and staightforward about it. You choose ambiguous formulas like "Victory to the intifada" and "Free Palestine" which can run smoothly past both labour movement activists who would be horrified at the idea of destroying Israel, and Islamic fundamentalists like those whom you chimed in with on the 13 April demonstration in London.
You opt for agitation which serves not the positive aim of helping the Palestinians, but only the negative aim of building up steam for the destruction of Israel in a remote (and, I'm glad to say, improbable) future.
You reject the immediate, practical solidarity slogans in favour of general agitation to express (as Socialist Worker's editorial put it) "anger at Israel, imperialism and oppression." You react to the Palestinian struggle not by asking how best to help the Palestinians, but by using their struggle as grist for the mill of your "hate Israel" agitation. You'd rather not campaign for Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories than allow any implication to pass that there should remain an Israel that can withdraw.
Or is there another explanation?

Martin Thomas


Submitted by martin on Fri, 03/05/2002 - 06:25

It is simply ridiculous to think that the SWP are not in favour of the Isreali state getting out of the occupied territories. Indeed it is one of the demands in the motion that I, Rob Hoveman, Weyman Bennett, Liz Davis, Nick Wrack, John Fisher and others are supporting at the next National Council. We are supporting this demand because it would advance the cause of the Palestinians. The SWP members at the last executive meeting of the Socialist Alliance were in favour of 'Isreal out of the occupied territories' as one of the demands of the Socialist Alliance. It subsequently appeared on the Socialist Alliance leaflet about Palestine produced by Rob Hoveman. We then voted for 'Free Palestine' and 'Victory to the Intifada' as the two main slogans for the placards on the Palestine demonstration of 13 April. You opposed these slogans.

One thing that will not advance the cause of the Palestinians is for socialists to temporise in our condemnation of the Zionist colonial enterprise which is currently trying to eleminate the PLO as an effective political force. Your Islamophobia has already meant that you did not support the aims of the Stop the War Coalition at its founding conference and put you beyond the pale of the largest anti-war movement for a generation. We are now part of the largest movement in solidarity with the Palestinians that this country has ever seen. Your 'even-handedness' in dealing with the oppressed Palestinians and the Zionist state machine oppressing them is in danger of similarly islolating you on this issue. The kind of slogans which you and your collaborators in the CPGB use ('Two states, two people', the slogan you advocated at the executive, and the CPGB's 'The twins of terrorism: Sharon and Hamas') are a shameful capitulation to the dominant anti-Palestinian and anti-Islamic tone of the ruling classes and their media in the West.

Submitted by martin on Tue, 14/05/2002 - 08:04

In reply to by martin

"Israel out of the occupied territories"

I argue that this is the key immediate, practical demand around which socialists should organise in solidarity with the Palestinian people. That is why I questioned the SWP's vote against it at the Socialist Alliance Executive on 13 April, and the fact that the SWP never uses this demand as an agitational or headline slogan in Socialist Worker, on its placards, or in its chants on demonstrations.

In my original letter I reported your explanation at the Socialist Alliance Executive of your vote - that you voted against the slogan because it was a wrong "priority", not because you wanted the Israeli army to stay in the territories. I also mentioned that Socialist Worker's small print has sometimes contained formulas which suggest the demand.

Evidently, then, I did not make the "ridiculous" claim that the SWP is not in general in favour of Israel getting out of the occupied territories, or would resist the inclusion of the demand for withdrawal in a resolution for which it is seeking broad support.

I did make the claim that the SWP downplays this demand in favour of general anti-Israeli agitation which links not with any immediate demand for relief or redress for the Palestinians but only with your long-term demand for the destruction of Israel, which is both (in anyone's opinion) remote as a practical proposition and (in our opinion) undesirable anyway.

I was right about that, wasn't I? At the Socialist Alliance executive on 11 May, the SWP voted down four separate attempts to make "Israel out" a key slogan for the Alliance.

Other slogans

As you note, at the Socialist Alliance Executive I opposed the slogans "Victory to the intifada" and "Free Palestine". I argued that they are ambiguous.

"Victory to the intifada" may mean victory for the official demands of the PLO (Israel out of the occupied territories, an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel), or victory for the goals of those like Hamas leading the suicide-bombing (making all British Mandate Palestine "Muslim land", and driving Jews off it). "Free Palestine" may mean an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, or "freeing" the whole land area of British Mandate Palestine of organised Jewish presence.

We do not want ambiguous slogans.


You criticise our "'even-handedness' in dealing with the oppressed Palestinians and the Zionist state machine". Eh? The first slogan I proposed at the Socialist Alliance Executive was "Solidarity with the Palestinians"; the second, "Israel out of the occupied territories". "Two nations, two states" means that the nation which does not at present have a state - the Palestinians - should have the right to form one, on the basis of full equality with Israel and where necessary in armed struggle against Israeli resistance.

That is no sort of "even-handedness" in the sense of ignoring the difference between oppressor and oppressed, or adopting a liberal newspaper-editorialist stance of wanting give-and-take on all sides so as to achieve peace by means of small, gradual, and diplomatic adjustments to the status quo.

Where we are "even-handed" is in advocating equal rights for all nations. As Lenin put it, "we fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressing nation and do not in any way condone the strivings for privilege on the part of the oppressed nation".

Usually this is not a contentious issue for oppressor nations. Indian nationalists never raised any demands which suggested any denial of the national rights of the English, Welsh or Scottish nations. There is a widespread view that denies the national rights of the Israeli Jews. We want to make it clear that we reject that view. My question is: how do you justify making the Israeli Jews an exception to the general democratic and socialist principle of equal rights for all nations?

You seem to do it by dismissing the Israeli Jewish people as a mere adjunct or epiphenomenon of "the Zionist state machine". But they are a nation. Many of them oppose Sharon. Even the recent marches demanding Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories - at a very difficult time for the Israeli left - have drawn numbers which equate, in proportion to population, to what we would consider huge demonstrations in Britain. Most Israelis live in Israel because they were born there; most of the rest, because they came as refugees fleeing persecution or escaping a heavily anti-semitic culture.

I'll let the CPGB reply to you on their slogans.

"Temporising" and "shameful capitulation"

You suggest that we "temporise in our condemnation of the Zionist colonial enterprise which is currently trying to eliminate the PLO as an effective political force" and that our slogan "Two nations, two states" is "a shameful capitulation to the dominant anti-Palestinian and anti-Islamic tone of the ruling classes and their media in the West".

To agitate for Israeli withdrawal and for Israel to concede the PLO's demand for an independent Palestinian state is a funny sort of "temporising in condemnation" of Sharon's attempt to crush Palestinian politics.

Your charge makes sense only if anything short of advocating the radical destruction of Israel, by whatever Arab forces come to hand, is "temporising in condemnation of the Zionist colonial enterprise".

But why should the Israeli Jewish nation not have the right to exist in peace and security? You would say that you want a democratic, secular, but reunited Palestine. Very good - if it can be democratic, i.e. created through free agreement, recognising self-determination for both nations.

But you advocate it as against self-determination for the Israeli Jews. You advocate it as a justification for the destruction of Israel. That could not be democratic.

The destruction of Israel could not be carried through without vast massacres of the Jewish population and heavy subjugation of any survivors. The Arab forces most militant about this "anti-Zionist" programme, like Hamas and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, have no commitment to democracy and secularism. Hamas's suicide bombings are an expression of the fact that they emphatically deny the right of the Israeli Jewish nation to exist, and indeed of Jews to live in Israel.

All the indications of history are that a war by Arab states to destroy Israel would also be a disaster for the Palestinian people. Their demand for a state of their own would most likely be crushed by the conquerors, just as the Palestinian state promised by the 1947 United Nations decision was (after having some of its territory annexed by Israel) snuffed out by Jordan and Egypt.

The programme of destroying Israel is in any case completely unrealistic. Even socialist revolutions throughout the region would not make it realistic. Such revolutions would not obliterate the Israeli Jews' desire for autonomy, any more than the 1917 Revolution in the former Tsarist Empire obliterated the national feelings of the various nationalities of that empire. It would be crippling and shameful for newly-formed Arab workers' states to launch themselves into a war of conquest against Israel.

The only political shift that would make the programme of destroying Israel realistic is US superpower switching to an anti-Israeli stance - but that, surely, cannot be what socialists hope and work for.


Workers' Liberty vocally supported the national struggles of the Bosniac and Kosovar Albanian peoples, both mostly Muslim. We initiated a special campaign in support of the national struggle of the Chechen people, also mostly Muslim.

When, on Bosnia and Kosova, the SWP preferred a stance of a "plague on both houses", we charged you, I still think rightly, with scandalous indifference to the fate of small Islamic nations under assault from the Christian Serbs. It is a bit rich for you now to accuse us of being Islamophobic.

To be militant in opposition to Islamic fundamentalism is not "Islamophobia". Far from it. Muslim socialists, democrats, workers and women have been the first victims of the fundamentalists.

A few months ago, Workers' Liberty was involved in organising a speaking tour in Britain for Dita Sari, a socialist and independent trade union leader from Indonesia. Dita is a Muslim. So are most of the members of her party and the union federation she leads. More recently in Australia, our comrades initiated and helped organise a speaking tour by Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the Labour Party of Pakistan. Most of the LPP's members are Muslims.

We found that both Dita and Farooq regard the Islamic fundamentalists as their mortal enemies. Dita's union federation is now discussing the organisation of defence squads for their meetings and offices, not so much for defence against the military and the police - though they know all about them: Dita nearly died when jailed by the former military dictatorship - as against the fundamentalists.

If there is "phobia" in this debate, it is on the side of those who wish to deny the Israeli Jews national rights in a way they would do for no other nation on earth. We have no "phobia" about Muslims. You have a "phobia", I'm sorry to say, about the Israeli Jews.

Your charges against us make sense only if the prime duty of socialists on this question is to chime in with the stance of the most militant Arab or Islamic chauvinists - only if our whole approach is entirely regulated by Arab or Islamic interests or concerns. It is a strange thing to have to say to a socialist, John, but on this question you are to the right of the PLO, which advocates "two states".

Best wishes,

Martin Thomas

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