On one level, the debate between Sean Matgamna of Workers’ Liberty and Moshe Machover in London on 12 October was a re-run of an old argument within the left.
Sean Matgamna argued that socialists should fight for a “two-states” settlement in Israel-Palestine – a really independent Palestinian state, in contiguous territory, alongside Israel.
Moshe Machover insisted that the “overthrow” of Israel (or, as he put it in the prior written debate, “anything like” present-day Israel) is a precondition for peace.
As Dave Ball noted from the floor, this is perhaps the most emotionally-charged debate on the British left, and so it was no surprise that the evening was rowdy. It was still welcome: it is rare to have big issues like this debated at length face-to-face, with a chance to give more or less comprehensive presentations on both sides.
Sean Matgamna opened. “AWL advocates compromise, recognition of the conflict of right against right... and... solving it on the basis of mutual accommodation: two states; as near as possible as justice for everybody; peaceful coexistence and... working-class unity across the divide between the two states”.
Why would anyone left-wing ever argue anything else? A chief reason is “the demonisation of the ‘Zionists’... in twentieth century history...”
What was the real story? There was a startling rise of anti-semitism in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Some Jews “concluded there had to be a Jewish state... looked at the possibilities and... advocated persuading Jewish people to go to Palestine”.
The Zionist movement “was initially rather weak” - but “as the crescendo of antisemitism built up towards the great slaughter, more and more Jews began to see the need for a Jewish state... Most of those who by the 30s came to see it like that... were driven by the fact that they couldn’t go on... in the old way. It wasn’t as though someone had a bright idea...”
“In 1947 the UN took a decision to partition Palestine... It was accepted by the Zionists... but... rejected by the Arabs... That led to the declaration of Israel in May 1948. As soon as Israel was declared, five Arab armies invaded, some of them officered by British soldiers...
“The Israelis, just like the Bosnians in the 1990s, faced an embargo on weapons... They got guns from the Stalinist USSR by way of Czechoslovakia... Stalin was playing the Jews off against the British Empire, making trouble for the Empire...
“In the course of the war and invasion... a large number of Arabs fled or were driven out. For the sake of clarity rather than to fudge the issue: they were driven out. This... happened as part of an ethnic, communal, national conflict... In 1948 and after 600,000... Jews were driven out of Arab countries and made their way to Israel.
“In that situation the victims were the Palestinians. It’s not that they were the victims because by nature the Jews are vicious and victimisers. It’s because they lost the war... If the Jews had lost the war they would have been faced with the tender mercies of... the Egyptian army, which invaded under the general slogan of ‘drive the Jews into the sea’.
“If we [socialists] had had armies on the ground, we’d have defended the Jews from the Arab pogromists and the Arabs from Jewish people attacking them. But we didn’t have such forces on the ground”.
From a one-sided reading of the history, people draw the conclusion that “the Jews, the Israelis are a bad people”. For socialists, however, “there are no bad peoples undeserving of rights. There is no such thing as collective crimes which invalidate the rights of the nation... for the subsequent period”.
As things are now, “the only possible programme for unification of the Jewish and Arab workers would be that they agree to fight oppression... workers’ unity on the basis of dividing up the territory as amicably as possible”.
Of course, “even the best Palestinian state would not be the economic equal of Israel... and from this comes the notion... that it’s meaningless to have such a state...
“Lenin in the middle of World War One called this idea ‘imperialist economism’...” — the idea that the overwhelming strength of the richest capitalist countries meant that it was pointless to fight for the political rights of the smaller nations.
In fact “there is a great deal to be gained” by an independent Palestinian state.
“People who put forward impossible pre-conditions before anything can be done to alleviate the condition of the Palestinians... are not the friends of the Palestinians...
“Two states is the only pro-Palestinian position... The bane of the movement [is] people who... are more interested in destroying Israel than in helping the Palestinians...”
Moshe Machover responded: “every single part of this so-called historical thesis has been refuted”.
He argued that Zionism was a “wrong” answer to anti-semitism. “If you meet a man in a pub saying ‘Jews should not be living among Gentiles, they should be living among their own kind’, is he a Zionist or an anti-semite? He could be either”.
Some Zionists had rejoiced at it becoming evident that assimilation was becoming unviable. In 1938, the Zionist leader Ben Gurion had been alarmed at the Evian conference, called to consider emergency measures for Jewish emigration, because it would “separate the issue of the [Jewish] refugees from that of Palestine”.
“Zionism is a project of colonisation... the last one that is still active... This is the root of the problem”. Machover quoted Vladimir Jabotinsky’s 1923 article advocating an “iron wall” against the Arabs to make room for a Jewish state.
Colonisation still proceeds in the West Bank. “This is what the Israeli state is all about. The Israeli state is not a national state in the ordinary sense”.
Zionism is also inseparable from imperialism. First, British imperialism. “This went on until the 1930s, when British interests changed...” Later, US imperialism.
Machover discussed at length Israel’s role in the Suez war in 1956, arguing that conflict with Iran is likely to follow “a similar scenario”.
In Israel-Palestine now, “one state, two states, no state, this is not the point... Socialists should insist on principles... equality of individual rights and equality of national rights... for the Palestinians and for the Hebrews...
“No feasible solution is possible within the box of Palestine, whether divided into two or as one country. The balance of forces within Palestine does not allow for it... The problem will not be solved properly short of a social transformation of the whole region. If you are thinking of interim solutions which will alleviate the problem, you are deluding yourselves. They will result in a continuation of Israeli Zionist colonisation”.
Machover asserted that “no-one” on the left supported the destruction of Israel, and said that he fought for the “overthrow” of Israel.
From the floor, Cathy Nugent argued that the history of Israel and of the Jewish people in the 20th century cannot be seen as just an expression of the errors or bad ideas of historical Zionism. Sacha Ismail pointed out “for a Palestinian state with the same rights as Israel” is an AWL slogan. Moshe Machover heckled to ask whether a Palestinian state today would have equal land area with Israel. Ismail responded that the importance of political self-determination for nations is not conditional on them having equal land areas: Ireland having a smaller land area than Britain did not make Irish independence meaningless.
Jim Denham said that Zionism today is in fact Jewish nationalism. Socialists are not nationalists, but we understand that nationalism cannot be abolished at will, and must be given a certain space. Tom Unterrainer asked how we would answer the Jewish survivors in the camps in Europe after World War Two.
Moshe Machover had declared, to great applause from some of the audience, that the “right of return” to Israel of 4.6 million Palestinian refugees (descendants of those who were driven out or fled in 1948) was an indispensable first principle. Martin Thomas responded that this “right of return” is a demand not for individual rights, but for collective repossession of the territory, a reversal of 1948. Propose it as a precondition for peace, and you are making peace impossible.
The tone of the debate on Israel-Palestine was set by speakers like Tony Greenstein, Michael Kalmanovitz, Maggie Ronayne, and Roland Rance. They all argued, and some of them stridently, that the “dismantling” of Israel is a precondition for peace.
Significantly, they all got great applause, and certainly no contradiction, from the members of the Weekly Worker group (CPGB) who made up the core of the “other side” from the AWL in the debate.
On paper, the WW agrees with the AWL on “two states”! Tina Becker, a longstanding member of the WW group, told Martin Thomas of AWL in a conversation after the end of the meeting that WW had changed its position to “something much closer to Moshe Machover”. We are told by the WW office that this is not so; their group’s majority position is still for “two states”. A minority supports the view that the Israeli Jews must be subsumed into a single state covering all of 1948 Palestine.
The interesting thing is that we have to research all that after the debate. After seven speeches from WW people, and vehement ones too, we were none the wiser about their actual policy.
With one exception, the WW speakers used their time not to propose politics, but to try to “scandalise”. Sean Matgamna, in an article in Solidarity 3/136, had not used strong enough words against a possible Israeli attack on Iran! Therefore he “excused” such an attack! Such an attack would inevitably be a nuclear attack! So Matgamna was “excusing an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran”!
Peter Manson reckoned he could establish that the Weekly Worker had been “truthful” about this by... “paraphrasing” what Matgamna wrote! As if the exact meaning of a text can be determined by giving your own paraphrase — let alone the flatly inaccurate paraphrase Manson made! “The answer was quite clearly that... we would not condemn such an attack... We wouldn’t oppose it either. The National Committee of the AWL voted against this... So it’s putting it very mildly indeed to say you excuse an attack”. (The AWL NC voted against an amendment to add the word “oppose” to “we are against” such an attack, considering it meaningless except as a de facto concession to the original Weekly Worker “argument” that using words other than those they would prefer to express opposition amounts to “excusing”. So to be against something is to excuse it...!)
John Bridge stepped further up this daft logical ladder, this verbal Ponzi scheme, this elaborate exercise in construing A to mean B, B to amount to C, C to entail D... and so A to equal Z. “What you’ve done is cross class lines and constitute yourselves social imperialists. And that needs driving out of the labour movement, yes it does. And yes it will be”.
Sean Matgamna, in one of the short response sessions that the platform speakers were called in for mid-debate, and Paul Hampton, Sacha Ismail, Dave Ball, Matt Cooper, and Robin Sivapalan, from the floor, all refuted this nonsense.
John Bloxam challenged Moshe Machover. Machover had noticeably not repeated the WW’s wild allegations, and in his mid-debate response he rebuked “sectarian bickering from both sides”. But why did he not openly repudiate the crazy stuff about “driving the AWL out of the labour movement”?
The politico-psychological mechanism in the WW’s scheme seems to be something like what psychologists call projection: in Peter Gay’s words, “the operation of expelling feelings or wishes the individual finds wholly unacceptable — too shameful, too obscene, too dangerous — by attributing them to another”. You find yourself in a conflict with someone, mistreating them — and you deal with it by persuading yourself that they are mistreating you.
The WW people identify with Iran. They find the fact that Iran has been developing a nuclear-weapons programme (even if it is currently stalled), and the fact that “death to Israel” has been a prime catchcry of the regime for decades, too uncomfortable to deal with. So they “project” the nastiness onto Israel and the USA. Israel is going to nuke Iran! Israel is inseparable from the USA! The Israeli attack will only be the first step in a US drive to “bomb Iran into the stone age” (WW) or “wipe out Iran” (Tina Becker, in the debate).
The exception in the WW contributions was the one from Mike McNair. It presented a political argument. It was a fantastically extrapolated version of Moshe Machover’s argument in his opening speech about Suez 1956 being a template for what’s likely to happen now.
The world is pretty much the same as in the era of the high imperialism of 100 years ago — shaped by politico-military control by stronger states over weaker states. The USA is intent on destroying Iran (and the rest of the world, or just Iran? it’s not clear); the British air force is certain to take part too; any Israeli raid on Iran could only be the trigger for that.
So the only war Iran will be involved in is one of resistance to this drive to wipe it out.
McNair referred sarcastically to “nasty Iran”, as if only dupes of imperialism could really consider the Iranian regime “nasty”. Machover had charged Sean Matgamna with “following the hysterical verbiage of Melanie Phillips about the mad mullahs”, and made a similar sarcastic reference to “nasty Hezbollah”. Yassamine Mather, while critical of the Iranian regime, protested against calling it “clerical-fascist”, saying that workers were drawn to political Islam by real grievances.
Sean Matgamna, in his summing up, replied that all fascist movements know how to mobilise workers round real grievances; they are still fascist. Daniel Randall, from the floor, took up the “nasty Hezbollah” reference, arguing for a “third camp” (independent working-class) stance against imperialisms big and small.
That side of the debate, the “Iran side” so to speak, nevertheless remained undeveloped here compared to the written debate.
The gist of the debate remained at two levels. In the basement, the WW’s attempts to scandal-build, and AWL rebuttals. On the upper floor, a substantive debate on Israel-Palestine.
Sean Matgamna summed up. Moshe Machover had given the audience a series of stories about past misdeeds by Zionists. Yes: they’re nationalists, and nationalists do such things. [This comment brought heckling and several minutes of uproar in the audience.] For example, in World War Two both left-wing and right-wing Irish nationalists allied with Nazis.
Matgamna was inclined to agree with Machover’s narrowing-down of the “nation” involved here to the Israeli Jews, rather than a broader Jewish identity, but the fact is that the nation exists.
It cannot be shifted short of conquest and destruction. It cannot be shifted, for example, as a revolt of the Israeli working class. They will not dissolve the nation.
To propose a “solution” which makes a precondition of dissolving the Israeli Jewish nation is unjust, and it is also anti-Palestinian. The Palestinians have no possible better option than their own state, which can then evolve.
Israel is a bourgeois state. A particularly ruthless bourgeois state. We don’t have to like it or what it does. But we have to have a democratic programme around which it can be possible to unite Jewish and Arab workers.
Caption: John Bridge (theory) and right, Mark Fischer (practice).
Mark Fischer is the organiser of the WW group. He claimed that AWL's criticism of Hopi policy on nuclear weapons was based only on four words in the policy — that the Iranian people should defend themselves "by any means necessary" — completely ignoring the written discussion about the implications of the Hopi formula that the only "just" demand is for a "nuclear-free Middle East". (Think what it means when someone in Britain responds to the call for unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain by saying that the only "just" demand is for a nuclear-free world).