Israel and the "essence of Zionism"

Submitted by martin on 4 November, 2008 - 12:44 Author: Sean Matgamna

Sean Matgamna replies to Moshe Machover's second polemic on Israel and Iran.

Comrade Machover,

My understanding of a personal letter is of something private, as distinct from the open letter I wrote you (Solidarity 3/138), which is intended, or mainly intended, for other readers. So I'll continue as I started.

My "tediously lengthy" response - "if I were as tedious as a king", as a famous corrupter of words once put it, I would be happy to bestow it all on you, comrade Machover, and on your not-quite-reconstructed-Stalinist close comrades.

Initially, you repeated the libellous nonsense of the Weekly Worker's campaign, lying about what I had said. You summed up my position thus: "while an attack on Iran "will most likely lead to great carnage in the Middle East, and beyond", it would be wrong to object to it if it is undertaken by Israel".

"[SM] just refuses to say anything against Israeli aggression. Go ahead, Israel - bomb away; feel free to cause 'large-scale Iranian civilian "collateral" casualties'! SM will look the other way". That was flatly untrue - a lamentable fit of demagogy.

In your second article, you have changed the story. Your complaint is that my "'objection' is not really that much of an objection... He will 'object', but will not condemn outright'."

That is not quite true either, but it is considerably nearer the truth than what you wrote first time out. Your two different versions - that I thought it "wrong to object", that I said "go ahead Israel, bomb away!"; and that I "will object" - can't both be true. In which statement are you mistaken, or sloppy, or knowingly repeating Weekly Worker lies?

Why waste your time, and mine, on such puerile nonsense?

If what you are doing in your second article is retracting what you said first time round, shouldn't you do it explicitly, and shouldn't you give some account of how you came to perpetrate a gross misrepresentation?

In any case, the new version isn't much of an improvement. You write: "he will 'object', but will not 'condemn outright'..." Will object to but not condemn what?

You run together two distinct things. I "objected" to an Israeli (conventional) military attack on Iranian nuclear installations; I refused to "condemn outright" Israel as such.

Why, comrade Machover, if you are as sure of your case as you want to appear to be, do you need such a tricky - and, to put it in plain words, dishonest - conflation? Those sentences of yours, as an illustration of literary and political vice, might have been taken out of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"!

You were strangely silent about the major Weekly Worker lie - the Goebbels-level lie! - that I had "excused" an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran. By ignoring it, you tacitly went along with it. Now you quietly try to sustain and justify it on the ground that Iran's nuclear installations are so well shielded as to be "probably inaccessible to conventional (non-nuclear) bombs". Therefore, an Israeli nuclear strike is an immediate possibility; therefore, that is what I was writing about; that is what I was (your first version) not objecting to, or (your second version) objecting to only weakly.

And that justifies the Weekly Worker's flat page-one charge, accompanied by a full-page picture of a nuclear explosion, that I "excuse" an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran?

Essence of Zionism?

You base most of your argument in the second article on the claim that any Israeli raid on Iran would be yet another manifestation of the workings of "Zionism", of the evil logic of an idea a century coined over a century ago.

My "basic" error, you say, is to think "that if Israel attacked Iran that would have nothing much to do with Zionism". So: any Israeli raid on Iranian nuclear installation would be very much "to do with Zionism", and with the "essence of what Zionism is in actual reality: a colonising project, structurally and inseparably allied to imperialism".

"What Israeli leaders and planners find 'intolerable' is any threat to Israel’s regional hegemony and its privileged status as 'the superpower in the Middle East': because it is this status that allows it to proceed with the Zionist project of colonisation without serious let or hindrance".

Exactly what this means is not clear: that Israel wants to bomb Iran in order to plant Jewish settlements there? Your triumphantly-presented overview of the "essence" of Zionism conflates Israel today, and the history of the Israeli Jewish people and of the European Jewry in the 20th century, with extrapolation from (chosen strands of) an ideology.

You suggest there are goals and aims and objectives, a hidden "essence", discernible only to those like you who can see through the mere appearance of things to the hidden "real" Zionism? That the true story was not one of many strands in the broad Zionist current - in the thinking, hopes, fantasies, fears of world Jewry - including people and groups who wanted a Jewish state stretching to the Euphrates, or wherever - but instead of a single "Zionism", with at its centre people pursuing such goals, using all the different "Zionists" with lesser ambitions as makeweights, tools, dupes, and "brainwashing" them as you say the Jews of Israel now are brainwashed about the danger from Iran?

I showed in my first reply that you seem to be in the grip of a thinly secularised Muslim eschatology; here you seem to subscribe to some variant of the doctrine of history, or Middle East history anyway, as shaped by a "Zionist" conspiracy.

This may be the result of your confusing a system of ideas, an ideology, Jewish nationalism, Zionism, with a movement of people set in motion by events such as the coming to power of the Nazis.

Your dissertation about Zionism is a piece of sheer obfuscation, erected on the self-evidently erroneous starting point of identifying a nation with an ideology. Nations are formed (and dissolved, if they dissolve) in history by many factors, of which ideology is only one, and one that is varying in its power from case to case, and in each case from point to point.

However big a part Zionist ideas, in their different dialects, played in shaping Israel, they would have achieved nothing without the work of the genocidal, and the lesser, anti-semites of Europe. The masses of Jewish people who went to Palestine in the 1920s and the 30s were mostly not motivated and set in motion by an idea, but by the impossibility of going on as before: that is how the project of a Jewish state came to make sense to large numbers of people. Now Israel exists, a tiny state with an overwhelming Jewish-Hebrew population.

Your logic-chopping sword-dance with definitions - of nations, of Israel, of Zionism - is a fine display of both (irrelevant) mental dexterity and intellectual and political decadence. It all amounts to saying that "common-or-garden" Israeli nationalism is a mere veil for the "essence" of Zionism, an insatiable "colonising project, structurally and inseparably allied to imperialism".

It is easy enough to construct continuous chains of ideas - like the one I cited last time: from nationalism to chauvinism to racism - or liberalism to anarchism; left liberalism to mild "socialism" to working-class revolutionary socialism; advocacy of female equality to the belief that normal male-female sex is rape; and so on, and so on.

The conclusion, however, that the less "extreme" are mere tools of the most "advanced" is the stuff of paranoid delusion. In reality, many things intervene to break up the neat, logical continuum. In reality, those neatly put side by side in your head and growing into one another in the mental construction, often make war on each other. Don't they?

Israel is locked into certain geographical, geopolitical, demographic, military, etc. frameworks. That, not the wishes of the most "extreme" Zionists, shapes what can happen.

That there are strong, even dominant, forces in Israel intent on annexing as much of the West Bank as they can, intent on delaying or preventing any deal with the Palestinians that would put an end to new settlements and uproot at least some of the "facts on the ground" - that is plain and obvious. I oppose that. You oppose that. But you present yourself as seeing, knowing, more than that when you talk about Zionism.


I ask myself: doesn't he know where he is, what's going on around him? Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is detestable; it should be condemned in its detail, and in its totality, by counterposing to it the creation of an independent Palestinian state in contiguous territory.

But the detestation of Israel on the ostensibly revolutionary left, and way beyond it - in the Guardian "liberal left", for instance - is out of all proportion to what Israel does, as compared to other evils in the world.

The bias, the eagerness to condemn, is surely something you don't need pointing out to you.

Consider, for example, the 60th anniversary of Israel's foundation, on 15 May this year. Tribune, representing opinion slightly to the left of the Guardian, marked the occasion with an article denouncing Israel root and branch, with no suggestion of any element in Israel's foundation other than gratuitous vindictiveness against the Palestinian Arabs.

The Guardian had several articles, with the tone set by the following headlines: "Palestinians commemorate Nakba day"; "Palestinians mourn 60th anniversary of 'the Catastrophe'"; "Expulsion and dispossession can't be cause for celebration"; "Palestinians mourn Israel's 60th anniversary".

A young person coming in to left-wing politics will naturally, healthily, side with the Palestinians. That young person will "tap into" a culture on the left in which the most vociferous people link all criticism of Israel's action to the idea that Israel has no right to exist, never had and never can acquire such a right.

He and she will be plied with selective, one-sided, grossly biased, and, yes, demonising, accounts of the 20th century history of the Jews of Palestine.

He and she will be educated in "demands" on Israel that amount to requiring that Israel abolish itself, or be utterly condemned for not doing so - such as the demand for the "return" of four or five million descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled during the 1948 war.

That "education" will naturally align the newcomer with any force that is against Israel - the more militantly, murderously, implacably hostile the better - Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah...

Into this you bring your "I know the Zionists" nonsense, and its heavy implication that there is some "essence-of-Zionism" conspiratorial grand design, in which the present Israel is only a staging-post for ever-expanding Jewish colonisation of the Middle East.

National rights

Benignly, you let me off the charge, of which you have "heard", that I am "actually... a Zionist". I'm an international socialist, not any kind of nationalist. But, of course, socialists are for the fullest possible national rights for peoples deprived of and claiming them.

On the kitsch-left, "Zionism" is used as a swear-word, not too different from "racist" or "fascist"; the usage is an artefact of ideological terrorism, used to stop people thinking about the issues. One shouldn't be afraid of words. So, comrade Machover, call me a Zionist, if you like. I am for Israel's right to exist and its right to defend itself: for what I understand as the core "Zionism".

Frederick Engels, towards the end of his life, said that there were two peoples, then, who had a "duty" to be nationalist before being internationalist - the Poles and the Irish. I'm less than sure that he was right about the Irish, even then - Engels was a bit of a romantic Irish nationalist - but, in any case, it ceased to be true of us in 1922. It remained true of the Poles up to the collapse of the Stalinist empire.

I'm inclined to think it was true of those who set up the Jewish state in the 1940s. True, the Zionist project did not avert, and could not have averted, the Nazi butcheries. But neither did we, the international socialists, the assimilationists, avert them. Two-thirds of European Jews were killed. The Jews who got to Palestine might have been killed, too, had the Germans occupied Palestine even temporarily; but in fact they survived. A Jewish state would surely have been able to offer refuge to a lot of those who perished in Europe.

Had the proposal of the Peel Commission in 1937 to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs not been blocked by the British government under Arab pressure, a lot more European Jews would have survived. Partition was, I think, the only way forward.

I know of no reason why the 30% Hebrew minority in Palestine - in fact there had been a Jewish minority there before the big migrations - did not have the right to self-determination and the right to "let in" as many of the people whom they considered their own, fleeing for their lives, as they could. Nor do I know of any reason why, in the 1930s and after, Palestinian-Arab rights overrode those of the Jewish population, or why socialists should accept that they did.

What conception of Palestinian Arab rights could lead anybody to say or imply that it would have been better if those Jews who got to Palestine in the 30s and the first half of the 40s had stayed in Europe and died instead? (Though Tony Cliff implicitly said it 20 years ago, in an interview with the SWP's magazine Socialist Review, no.100). The Palestinian Arab chauvinists, such as the Mufti of Jerusalem, who went to Bosnia to raise a Muslim army to fight for Hitler, thought that; but socialists?

Arab or Islamic chauvinism, such as that of the Mufti, does not become any better because it is purveyed by people who call themselves socialists and Marxists and Trotskyists; indeed, if held to with hindsight, it is a great deal worse.


The answer, the counter, to the real Israel expansionism is the democratic political programme of two states, a Palestinian state alongside Israel - what was stipulated in the 1947 UN partition resolution. (Jordan and Egypt seized most of the territory designated for the Palestinian state, including the West Bank, which Israel did not occupy until 1967; Israel seized some). An independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory - that is clear, defined, policy, and can conceivably be realised (though, if it is not realised soon, it may well disappear from history as an option).

Poisonously, you combine cloudy hints and half-thoughts and "aha! I know what they are really up to" intimations of something like a hidden "Zionist" conspiracy with rejection of any conceivable solution. You back up the demand for the abolition of Israel with that "aha! I know" conspiracy stuff. (Give them an inch and they'll take your hand...?)

All your proposals to replace Israel (or "anything like" it) pose two alternatives. Either Israel will voluntarily cease to exist. Its citizens will dismantle their state, disarming themselves in face of the bitter enemies of a century of conflict.

Or, they will not do that. No people in comparable circumstances ever has. Then? Then, Israel must be forcibly disarmed and dismantled, and its Hebrew citizens deprived of national rights.

The war to subjugate Israel could not conceivably result in a situation in which the Jewish citizens of Israel would be allowed to merge peacefully into an Arab state, even if they wanted that - because the only conceivable agency for the subjugation of Israel would be an alliance of Arab or Islamic states.

Your prerequisites for a settlement have, in turn, as their prerequisite, the conquest and disarming of the Israeli Jews. Who is going to do that? How? When?

I don't think it should happen, but in any case it is not going to happen. And if it did happen, the last thing you'd get from it would be fair and equal treatment for the Israeli Jews.

I have great difficulty in believing that you really think it is going to happen - and therefore great difficulty in understanding what you think you are doing. The most charitable interpretation I can put on it is that you are being self-indulgently irresponsible: you are stamping your feet at history, shouting utopian slogans.

Iranian nuclear weapons

One of the most important things in your first piece was that you understood your responsibilities as an opponent of Israeli or US war on Iran to include being an apologist for the existing Iranian regime.

True, you called the Iranian leaders "bastards", but, for example, you insisted that they wanted only to remove "the Zionist regime" - in the sense of the Israeli government? - rather than destroy Israel.

In your reply you accused me of "malign[ing] the leftist opponents of aggression by attributing to them the absurd idea that Arab and Islamic states 'should' possess nuclear weapons because Israel does". I agree the idea is absurd. Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean that no idiots can be found on the kitsch left to champion it, clearly or implicitly.

I replied: "You yourself share the attitude, or something approaching it. You express it like this: "The only basis on which we can justly [!] demand that Iran be forbidden to have [nuclear weapons] is to make the entire region free of nuclear weapons. This is the demand we must raise..."

The formula of "a nuclear-free Middle East" can, in the circumstances, not fail to be a justification or - if I dare use the word - excuse for supporting (or "not condemning") Iranian nuclear weapons. You make opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons, vocal opposition anyway, conditional on prior Israeli nuclear disarmament.

It is an old formula for tacitly justifying something which one wants to evade explicitly justifying - by changing the subject. It means: if Israel won't give up nuclear weapons and create a nuclear-free zone, then the fault is Israel's if Iran acquires nuclear weapons. If this is not political "outriding" for the Iranian regime, what is it? What else can talk of 'the only just demand' mean here?

Second time round, you cite Israeli bigwigs to prove that Israel does not believe that there is any threat of an Iranian nuclear attack. But your quotations show nothing of the sort. What you quote concerns how the bigwigs think, not about the probability of a real Iranian nuclear threat, but about how the Iranian threat should be presented publicly, and what its existence might mean for immigration to Israel.

You quote the Jerusalem Post reporting, under the headline "Iranian nukes mean end of Zionism", former deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh, at a conference of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, states the opinion that: "Iran's success in obtaining a nuclear capability will deter Jews from immigrating to Israel, cause many Israelis to leave and will be the end of the 'Zionist dream'... A nuclear weapon in Iranian hands will be an intolerable reality for Israel. The decision-making process in Israel will be under constant [Iranian] influence - this will be the end of the Zionist dream".

You also quote, from the Jerusalem Post, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who "slammed Israeli political leaders for calling Iran's nuclear threat 'an existential threat'... There is something wrong with informing our enemy that they can bring about our demise... It is also wrong that we inform the world that the moment the Iranians have a nuclear capability there is a countdown to the destruction of the state of Israel. We are the superpower in the Middle East and it is time that we began behaving like [a] superpower".

"Iran's real goal, Halevy said, was to turn itself into a regional superpower and reach a 'state of equality' with the United States in their diplomatic dealings".

What do you think this proves? You say: "When members of the Israeli 'defence' establishment are engaged in serious discussion - rather than propaganda for the consumption of the [Israeli] deluded masses and willing dupes - they say something quite different" from what I had said "most Israelis" see in the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

After the quotations, you claim that they contradict: "SM['s] attempt to explain - and excuse - an Israeli attack on Iran as a defensive measure in the face of an existential threat, rather than as motivated by 'the demon-Zionism stuff'." You add: "Both Ephraims... agree that the issue is not the survival of Israel. Unlike SM, they do not believe Israel faces a real threat of physical destruction... General Sneh... is worried about... not Israel's existence, but the fate of the 'Zionist dream'."

This is an inverted pyramid of large conclusions balanced on a very small space. It is an example of using spuriously "expert", "insider" knowledge as sand to throw in the eyes of the reader.

If, as you seem to say, Iranian nuclear weapons would not be a threat to Israel, why would they do what Sneh says - deter immigrants, and prompt others to leave?

Sneh's talk here of "the Zionist dream" means a vastly expanded Jewish state? So it might, for all I knew on first reading, and for all most of your readers will know.

I discover on checking that in fact Sneh is the leader of a Israeli-Labour split-off, "Israel Hazaka", one of whose four "principles" is: "To pursue with sustained determination the end of the conflict with the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution".

Plainly Sneh meant just Israel, the Zionist dream.

From what you cite, Halevy is evidently concerned that talking too much (too candidly) about Israel being wiped out will encourage Iran. He insists that Israel can still do something about the risk, and fatalism and resignation are not called for.

You quote Halevy that "Iran's real goal" is to be a regional superpower, to reach equality in diplomatic dealings with the USA. And you are saying that Iran as a nuclear-armed regional superpower would not be; might not be; could never be, a nuclear threat to Israel?

You say "Both Ephraims... agree that the issue is not the survival of Israel. Unlike SM, they do not believe Israel faces a real threat of physical destruction". Maybe that is so - but it is not what your quotes tell me. If Ephraim Halevy does not think Israel is under threat, it is, according to what you quote, because he thinks Israel doesn't have to let the threat develop.

Halevy is an embattled politician, one of the most vehement opponents in Israel of a strike on Iran.

If your point, with the quotes, is that an Israeli strike would not be a pure act of self-defence, with no other implications or motives, then I agree.

But isn't the real meaning of what you write that you yourself think a nuclear-armed Iran and a regional balance of terror would be a good thing - checking "Israeli expansionism"? When you say that Israel fears an Iranian nuclear bomb because it would checkmate "Zionist expansion", aren't you also saying that it would be all to the good? You expect positive benefits from a nuclear-armed Iran. All you see threatened in Israel is "Zionist expansionism"; and here is the agency to deal with it.

I wrote in my open letter: "Washing around in your subconscious here seems to be a half-formed notion that it would be good if Israel were faced with another power in the Middle East able to brandish nuclear weapons". In fact, I was mistaken: it is not only in your subconscious.

Why is the reader not entitled to conclude:

(1) That, obsessively hostile to Israel and "Zionism", you are now immersed in calculations of regional power politics as the answer to those evils;

(2) That, despite saying you don't, you do actually want Iran to have nuclear weapons (as a way to checkmate "Zionist expansionism");

(3) That you look to power-politics and a nuclear balance of terror to curb an Israel which you can't see being curbed otherwise;

(4) That you have abandoned all concern with working-class politics as the alternative to those regional power politics.


Submitted by AWL on Thu, 25/09/2008 - 13:15

The first paragraphs above under the cross-head "Iranian nuclear weapons" are omitted in error in the printed version of the article. (They summarise the argument on this question from Sean Matgamna's first response to Moshe Machover).

"One of the most important things in your first piece.... What else can talk of 'the only just demand' mean here?"

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