The "cowardice" of AWL on the Gaza war? An exchange on Israel and Zionism

Submitted by martin on 20 February, 2009 - 7:51 Author: Eric Lee, Sean Matgamna, Ian Sternberg, Sacha Ismail

A debate from the website (in full here).

Sean Matgamna’s article (Solidarity 3/145) blasts the Socialist Party for concealing its real views (the two-state solution) for fear of being unpopular, or provoking anger from pro-Hamas demonstrators. The question of political courage runs like a red thread in this article and Sean correctly writes that “the socialist who is afraid to be unpopular who cannot stand against the tide, or even the stream, is a poor little specimen indeed.”

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

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

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

Eric Lee


Not Israeli nationalists

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

Living in a political world that is crazedly “anti-Zionist” and anti-Israel, of course we defend Israel’s right to exist, try to explain the Israeli point of view, defend the “Two Nations, Two States” position, fight against the demonisation of Israel and “Zionism”. During the recent war, we reminded people of the Hamas rockets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those who are not reflex Israeli chauvinists will know when not to side with Israel. For myself, I take a friendly attitude to Israeli nationalism, and, in retrospect, to the pre-World War Two movement for a Jewish state, believing that of all peoples, post-Holocaust Jews have a right to be nationalist. That is not the same thing as Israeli chauvinism… Or the same as proclaiming the principle “Israel — right or wrong!”

Eric might like to comment on this point from the editorial in the last Solidarity: “Politically [the war] arises out of the Israeli establishment’s refusal to work effectively to lay the political foundations of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Nothing less will do for the Palestinians.

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

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

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

Eric confuses Israeli chauvinism with Third Camp independent socialism. We are internationalists. We defend nations and national movements, when we do, as internationalists, as international socialists, or else we are not socialists at all.

Sean Matgamna


I’m not an Israeli nationalist either!

Sean says that Eric Lee’s and my position is Israeli nationalist. I am not an Israeli nationalist — I am a Zionist.

Zionism is the national liberation struggle of the Jewish people. Like any other national movement Zionism is comprised of people from different classes and political opinions — to categorise all Zionists as “nationalists“ or “chauvinists“ seems to me to be rather unhelpful about people like me and Eric (who want peace with the Palestinian people and support the struggles of the Israeli and Palestinan trade union movements).

Sean says that we support Israel as “my country right or wrong“.

I primarily support Israel because it is a democracy.

I don’t see a contradiction between being a Zionist supporter of Israeli democracy and being an international socialist.

As an international socialist I support working class struggle throughout the world.

You say that the AWL “supports the right of the Palestinians to fight and drive out the Israeli occupation forces“. The last two wars (2006 and 2009) were provoked by terrorists operating from territory that Israel has already left — so where does “occupation“ come into it? The terrorists like to hide behind women and children as human shields but they are a lot less likely to stand and engage the IDF in open combat.

The basic problem with the position of the AWL is that although it supports a two-state solution it seems to lay the majority of the blame for the failiure of the peace process at Israel’s door. The Palestinians reverted to terrorism in 1996 and rejected Ehud Barak’s proposals in 2000 and launched the second intifada and the suicide bombings. As a National Council member of The Zionist Federation — I have met many of the Israeli political leaders and IDF commanders who have always stressed their desire to return to peaceful negotiations with the Palestinians — I totally believe the sincerity of what they said.

Ian Sternberg


The only possible justification is Israeli chauvinism

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

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

Yes, we do lay the “majority of the blame” on Israel. Why? Because now — not throughout its long interaction with the Palestinians and other Arabs, but now — Israel is immensely strong, and therefore could shape events. Israel was and is strong enough to create a new political framework by way of a “Land for Peace” agreement with the Arab League, and the establishment of a Palestinian state that would satisfy most Palestinians.

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

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

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

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

And for all the carnage, Hamas has not been destroyed and it is still capable of launching rockets on Israel. Politically Hamas has been strengthened amongst the Palestinians, and so, it seems, has the Israeli right.

You say: “I am not an Israeli nationalist — I am a Zionist... to categorise all Zionists as ‘nationalists’ or ‘chauvinists’ seems to me to be rather unhelpful...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean Matgamna


A point of disagreement

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

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

Sacha Ismail


Am I “Zionist”?

One one level it’s a sterile argument, whether we are “Zionists” or not. I defined what I understand by it: support for a Jewish state. That describes me, and though Sacha is entitled to reject the label for himself, I think it describes him. I didn’t say AWL is “Zionist” because I know comrades, like Sacha, would disagree.

I counterposed Zionism in general, meaning support for a Jewish state, to the “nationalism” I see in Ian Sternberg and Eric Lee.

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

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

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

Sean Matgamna

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