By Martin Thomas
The debate about "Zionism" currently running in Solidarity was taken to a meeting called by the Weekly Worker group in London on 26 October. Sean Matgamna spoke, and he, Sacha Ismail and I from the AWL responded to the polemics against us from the Weekly Worker people.
The Weekly Worker people put on the meeting to vent their outrage at the idea that any socialist should ever call themselves "Zionist" in any sense, but primarily disputed with the AWL on two substantive questions: the 1948 war which founded Israel, and the Palestinian "right of return" to the territory now Israel.
Indeed, John Bridge of the Weekly Worker conceded that "in the art of polemics", "shock tactics" are sometimes useful. "In a room full of anti-semites, one might say, 'In that case I am a Zionist'."
Sean Matgamna's point was that the "room" we mostly operate in, the British left, is full of anti-semites. Not racists, not old-fashioned Jew-haters, but people who think that "Zionism" and "Israel" are more or less synonymous with "racism" and "imperialism", and therefore that it is good and revolutionary to vilify, ostracise, and ban "Zionists", meaning Jews who feel a reflex identification with Israel (even if not necessarily with Israeli government policies).
The historical truth is that Zionism and Israel are not at all synonymous with racism and imperialism. Jews came to Palestine in large numbers not because they were racists who wanted to do down the Palestinians, but because they could find no other place to flee to from persecution in Poland and then Nazi Germany. The Jewish community wheeled and dealed with various imperialisms - British; in 1948, Russian; later, American - in essentially no different a way from that in which, for example, Irish nationalists have sought to ally with Germany.
By the mid 1930s, at latest, there was a Jewish nation in Palestine. It had a right to self-determination.
Weekly Worker speakers argue that formation of Israel in 1948 was a crime to be condemned. As Matgamna and I said, some of the Zionist forces certainly committed crimes during the 1948 war. But to say that the very project of self-determination for the Jewish nation in Palestine was criminal is a different matter. The Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky did not condemn the achievement of self-determination by the Turkish nation after World War 1, although the Turks carried out atrocities against Greek populations.
And what would the WW propose for 1948? The slogan of the invading Arab armies was "drive the Jews into the sea".
After 1948, tentative negotiations to resolve the position of the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven out by Israeli forces during the war failed. The beleaguered, dispersed, pauperised Palestinians were drawn into a campaign by the Arab states for the "right of return", meaning mass collective repossession of what was now Israel by the Arabs, to be achieved by military victory of the Arab states over Israel. It was the Palestinians who suffered most from this illusory programme.
First left-wing Palestinians, and then since 1988 the whole PLO, have come instead to advocate "two states". That, argued Matgamna, is the rational democratic programme for Israel-Palestine, and it is incompatible with the "right of return".
Weekly Worker speakers said that we must support the "right of return" because of our general principle of freedom of movement. We should interpret it as individual freedom of movement rather than mass collective repossession.
Historically, however, "right of return" is quite different from individual freedom of movement. (Quite different, also, from the idea of some measure of restitution and compensation for the 1948 refugees' descendants). In fact, it was in the name of the "right of return" that the Arab states refused Palestinians the right to become citizens with equal status in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, etc. Real individual freedom of movement can be achieved only when the programme of mass collective repossession is taken off the agenda by a democratic two-states settlement.
On paper the Weekly Worker has the same basic line as Solidarity on Israel-Palestine: two nations, two states. But does the Weekly Worker argue that the Israeli Jews' right to self-determination should be conditional on them accepting the "right of return"?
The Israeli Jews will never accept a "right" of mass collective repossession. No nation would. Assuring them that only a minority of Palestinians will choose to "return", as the Weekly Worker does, will not change that. The Weekly Worker ends up defending self-determination for the Israeli Jews only in hypothetical circumstances which will never arise.
Their position is ambivalent also because they accept the fundamental "left anti-Zionist" premise that Israel bears the stamp of evil from its birth, and qualify it only by urging a more "moderate" approach to this evil than the SWP's "revolutionary" "no compromise with Zionism" line; since Israel has become an accomplished historical fact, we should knuckle down and accept it.
The result, as Matgamna put it, is that the Weekly Worker is disabled from really fighting for its "two states" line. It plays the same sort of role on this as this "soft left" used to play in the battles in the Labour Party in the early 1980s, creating a terrain where people can dissociate from the Establishment (Foot in the Labour Party, the SWP in the left on Israel/ Palestine) while directing their main fire against the "excesses" of those who actually fight the Establishment (the hard left then, the AWL and others now).
Four points need mention from the Weekly Worker's lengthy report of the meeting (WW 502).
1. It describes me as "Martin 'little bit Zionist' Thomas", without noting my comment in the meeting that the WW's repeated description of me as calling myself "a little Zionist" is... a little bit inaccurate. At a meeting in summer 2002, I said that I am not an Israeli nationalist, but if "Zionism" means the right of Israel to exist, then I'm a Zionist. I did not ruefully admit to being "a little bit Zionist", a little off colour, in the way that one admits to being "a bit stupid".
2. It describes Matgamna as "declar[ing] that his [sic] organisation should be... an out, loud and proud, fully-fledged Zionist grouping". It does not report what Matgamna actually said, that his personal slant on the word "Zionism" is personal, not an AWL "line" (or even something he has advocated in any sort of resolution or formal proposal since we started debating this back in 1986).
3. It describes Matgamna as advocating "critical support" for the US-sponsored "roadmap" for the Middle East. Matgamna said nothing of the sort, and has made it repeatedly clear in Solidarity that he advocates no such thing.
4. It describes Matgamna as arguing that "the Jews were murdered in their millions because they did not have a state". Matgamna commented that in fact more Jews died in the Holocaust than would have done had they had a safe refuge-state. He also made clear his solidarity with the Trotskyists in the 1930s who argued for the socialist revolution as the only adequate response to murderous anti-semitism. If that was not clear enough, Sacha Ismail read out to the meeting an extract by Matgamna from our pamphlet Two Nations, Two States making that same point.
"A little bit inaccurate", yet again.
By Martin Thomas