By Sean Matgamna
In the recently made Disney cartoon version of the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” — so I’ve read somewhere — Quasimodo — “Quassi” — is not seriously deformed, and he is not cripplingly deaf; the villain is no longer a priest; the chirpy, friendly characters sing to each other in American accents; and, for all I know, it ends with Esmerelda and Quasimodo — “Essie and Quassi” — going off together hand in hand into the sunset.
It explains quite a lot, though it does, I admit, surprise me, that Jim Higgins operates with a - darker-toned - Disneyfied version of history.
When I read Jim’s whimsy about smelly socks and marble backsides it did flit through my mind that he was, inappropriately, trying to be funny. I had to abandon that idea because he never pulls out of it. The supposedly serious stuff is all on the same level!
The feeble humour disappears, but his entire account is in the same mode, consisting of snippets of chewed up “history” concocted into a simple albeit malevolent tale.
Highly complex questions of national conflict are reduced to children’s tales of good guys and black-jowelled bad guys.
Let me tell you the grown-up story, Jim. You’d have done better to leave Stalinism and its spinners of malign fairy stories out of it, for your politics on Israel come directly from Stalin.
Stalin was, to take the pertinent example, at the end of his life running a raging campaign of paranoid anti-Jewish propaganda, complete with show trials, and seemingly getting ready for a wholesale rounding up of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe — he died too soon — and possibly for large-scale massacres. [See Stan Crooke in Workers’ Liberty 10.]
Following Kremlin propaganda, in support of Russia’s post-’49 foreign policy in the Middle East, and Stalin’s anti-Jewish — “anti-Zionist” — purges and trials in Eastern Europe, the Stalinists created in the early ’50s and after a full-scale account of modern history, and of Jewish history, in which the “Zionists” were the great villains, possessed of a demonic power and malevolence. The Zionists in, for example, the show trial in Prague in 1952 were revealed as being almost as tricky as the Trotskyists, who had been exposed and branded as allies of fascism in the Moscow Trials of ’36, ’37 and ’38.
There, the Trotskyist left of Bolshevism was amalgamated with the Bukharinite right, old Bolsheviks were shown to be Fascists and the men who led and organised the October revolution were shown to have been secretly working for its defeat!
Things were never what they seemed: eternal vigilance was the price of Stalinist probity, and eternal paranoia was even better.
Like the Trotskyists, the Zionists too were not always what they seemed. The devil can change his form in a flash of light.
Zionists? Ha! In a world where Jews were surrounded by anti-semitism, they worked with anti-semites, “implicitly accepting” their racist premises: the Zionist Herzl visited Von Plehve, the anti-semite Tsarist minister, just as Trotsky had treacherously negotiated with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. More: they worked closely with the Nazis: didn’t some of them freely choose to negotiate with the mass murderers who held guns to the heads of millions of Jewish captives?
Jewish nationalists whose avowed mission was to redeem the Jewish people from the Diaspora and to recreate a Jewish nation in Palestine — why, these were in reality the arch-collaborators with the Nazis who set out to kill every Jew in Europe, and did kill two out of three of them.
This was propagated and believed from the early ’50s by the world “communist” movement: the great irony is that it spread in the ’70s to the Trotskyist current and is still a power there.
Against fairy-story history it is necessary to erect real history, and against Arab-chauvinist politics working-class politics, and I will do that. But first we need to establish what the point of all this is. Can it be that those of us who defend the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state so long as that is what the Israeli Jews want, and propose as a solution to the conflict what the PLO now proposes — two states; and full and equal citizenship for Palestinian Jews and Arabs in each other’s state — simply lack sympathy or empathy with the Palestinian Arabs?
Is our attitude the mirror image of the vicarious Arab chauvinism I would ascribe to Jim Higgins — and Tony Cliff and Paul Foot? Are we just native or adoptive Jewish nationalists? No we’re not!
Of course we sympathise with the losers so far in the Arab-Jewish conflict, the Palestinian Arabs and their descendants. Of course we supported their Intifada against intolerable conditions and Israeli occupation of the territories where they are the majority. Of course we support the PLO aspiration to have an independent Palestinian state — where the Palestinian Arabs are a majority.
They have our sympathy and in general our support. But then what? Then we adopt their viewpoint in its entirety? We do what kitsch Trotskyists and Jim Higgins, who has spent a lot of his life sneering at “Trots”, do and propagate the old Stalinist paranoid myths about modern Middle Eastern history? We express and elaborate and rationalise the Arab bourgeois and petty bourgeois account of their own history?
No, we don’t, no we can’t — if we aspire to be communists and not one or another sort of vicarious nationalist.
Let us look briefly at history, matching facts against fairy stories, and real history against Jim Higgins’ Disneyisation of the story.
How did it happen that in the middle of the 20th century a Jewish state reappeared after 2,000 years? From where did the ideologists of ‘Zionism’ suddenly derive such power over the minds of so many Jews, people of many classes scattered across many lands, as to induce hundreds of thousands of them to be pioneer settlers and workers in Palestine?
Zionism gripped Jewish minds as an urgent project of Jewish resettlement because of the alarming growth of anti-semitism in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. There are recorded statements of astonishing accuracy predicting large-scale massacres of the Jews - Weizmann in 1919, for example. Judophobia would continued to grow until it produced the murderous crescendo of the Holocaust.
After 1881, there was the start of systematic pogroms in the Russian empire, including Poland, whence many of those who went to Palestine came. In France, where the great revolution had long ago raised the Jews to equal citizenship, anti-semitism became a powerful rallying cry for the right (and not only for the right; there was ‘left’ anti-semitism too: “the socialism of idiots”).
Everywhere there were stirrings of anti-semitism. Jews became the victims of the international plague of nationalism and chauvinism, and the widespread post-Darwin pseudo scientific racist nationalism.
Zionism, initially a minority among Jews, gained force and strength from these events until, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the big majority of Jews were Zionists.
The uneasy sense of mortal danger and real persecution gave much of its energy to Zionism.
The gathering poison gas of Judo-phobia drove the Zionist enthusiasts of the first and second waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, from Tsarist Russia and Poland. Long before Hitler came to power, in the mid 20s, the third great wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine came from Poland, a direct result of anti-Jewish measures taken by the regime there. Already, the alternative escape routes were closing. The USA had ended its open doors policy for emigration in 1924. The next great wave in the ’30s was a direct response to Hitler and to continuing Polish anti-semitism. The point here is that already, before the Holocaust, mass Zionism as an idea, and migration to Palestine as a refuge, as the best option in a world closing in on the Jews, were inextricably bound together and impossible to prise apart.
The same was true only much more so after the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of Jewish survivors of the death camps languished for years in Displaced Person’s Camps, some of them made-over former concentration camps.
Anti-semitic feeling did not hide its head for shame then, as you might think it would.
There was widespread prejudice: in the USA at about that time the cinema newsreels were showing pictures of the Nazi death camps there was a spate of attacks on Jews and even on Jewish children in American city streets, in Minneapolis to take an example reported in the US Trotskyist press of that time.
Another example from the same source: asked in 1945 by the US Department of Education in a questionnaire what they thought of educational provision and training for their profession, the official association of US dentists made the formal and official reply: everything is fine except that there are too many Jews in the dental colleges.
Deported Jews returning to Poland met with pogroms and murder. In an opinion poll taken amongst Jewish Displaced Persons in camps in Europe the big majority gave Palestine as their first choice of refuge: they wanted to be with their own; they couldn’t trust strangers after their experience.
By that time there were half a million Jews in Palestine, about one in three of the population. Why from a socialist as distinct from an Arab chauvinist point of view did they not have national rights?
The Jewish national minority in Palestine was first offered partition by Britain in 1937 and then had it taken away: on the eve of the war Britain announced that Jewish immigration would be cut to a few thousand a year and after five years stopped. Effectively, Britain closed the ports of Palestine to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe.
Jewish “boat-people” crossed the sea in unseaworthy craft that sometimes sank; if they got to Palestine they were refused the right to land, or interned. In 1942, one unseaworthy boat, the Strumo, driven out from a Turkish port and refused the right to land in Palestine, sank, killing 700 people, including children.
Leave the demonology aside here, for a moment Jim and what do you get? Jews threatened with annihilation — six million of whom would die — for whom it was a “world without a visa.”
For example, on the eve of World War Two a shipload of Jewish refugees — the St. Louis — sailed around the coasts of the Americas and, refused the right to unload its human cargo anywhere, had to go back to Europe. Almost all these people perished.
The idea that “the Zionists”, who indeed were, avowedly, in the business of getting Jews to Palestine, and whose leaders made statements to that effect — Jim Higgins quotes one — shaped and controlled this situation is ridiculous.
The idea that because Zionists wanted Jews in Palestine, therefore they would prefer them dead than have them elsewhere is grotesque.*
Jim Higgins’ malignant fairy tale level of anti-Zionist demonology is there in his tale about the 1943 Bermuda Conference. The good guy Roosevelt wanted to open the doors to Jewish refugees but was dissuaded by “the Zionists.” No Jim, two things were specifically excluded from the agenda at Bermuda: Palestine at Britain’s behest, and US immigration policy, at the insistence of the USA. That was just “the Zionists”?
In relation to what other groups of people would the utterly monstrous charges that are so casually bandied about, be even given a hearing? As I understand it, in both Britain and the USA at that time, the authorities kept quiet about the systematic killing of Jews for fear that to make much of it publicly would provide a backlash and the charge that this was “a Jewish war.” The “Zionists” who, according to Higgins, could tell Roosevelt in 1943 what his policy was to be couldn’t — and they tried — get the allies to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz to stop the death trains bringing victims to the ovens.
There was, over the ages, continued Jewish focus on Jerusalem — and always a small Jewish element in Palestine. The majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish at the turn of the century. The Jewish population built up slowly.
Why exactly was it ruled out that large numbers of Jews should come in here, even if that meant that they would eventually be a majority?
It is not just Zionist myth that desert and swamp and uncultivated land made up the greater part of the areas settled by Jews under the League of Nations Mandate.
What did the Communist International say about Jewish migration to Palestine?
When it was a communist movement, it did not oppose Jewish immigration into Palestine, though they opposed the Zionist project and called on Jewish and Arab workers and farmers to unite. They were not concerned that if enough Jews went to Palestine they would be the majority, or that the steady influx of Jews was creating a national minority, with great implications for the future. These were seen as living processes, self-regulating. The shift to something like Jim Higgins’ politics on the question came in the Communist International after 1929 [see the brief account of this in Workers’ Liberty 31].
In the ’30s Trotskyists did not share the Stalintern’s blinkered Arabism. The dominant line of the Trotskyists was not that Jews should not for anti-imperialist principle or out of deference to Muslim-Arab chauvinism flee to Palestine if they could get in but that Palestine could not possibly take enough of them for Zionism to be any solution to the threat they faced.
In fact, the Arab-Jewish conflict and its vicissitudes, is very complex. In the 20s there was a sizeable Arab migration into Palestine from surrounding territories as a result of the increased economic life attendant on the Zionist colonisation. Conflict erupted for cultural and religious reasons as well as for reasons of Arab resentment that Britain and the League of Nations had designated Palestine as a Jewish national home. In 1929 there were major elements in the pogroms of the backward Muslim countryside being raised against the urban heretical Jews. The aristocratic Muslim clans demagogically attacked the newcomers. These are recognisable processes and patterns in many countries.
I am not sure this complex of animosity on the part of Muslim society, led by landlords and priests who were the oppressors of the Arab peasantry, is something sacred, to which all else has to be subordinated; I’m not sure why the growing Jewish national minority in Palestine, who were in the grip of their own nationalist egotism, should have bowed down to Arab or Muslim national, cultural and religious egotism. Or from what point of view socialists should ask them to — or damn them to the third and fourth generation for refusing to.
For the Palestinian Arabs, I can understand such an attitude. For socialists? These things are generations back. Whatever the past rights and wrongs, the Israelis are now mainly people whose parents, and often their grand or great grandparents, were born there; and conversely the overwhelming majority of Palestinian “refugees” were not born in the territory that is now Israel.
Whatever it was in the past, it is a conflict now of right against right: consistent democrats and socialists seek the best “compromise” solution, rather than a solution that crushes one side. From what point of view other than a narrowly Jewish or Arab one, can either side claim all the right? So, we might if we were gods choose — given a real choice, I would — a secular common Jewish-Arab state with Arab and Jew sharing equal citizenship? Unfortunately, it has no purchase on reality, nor did it in the 1940s when the idea of a bi-national state had some support as the alternative to partition. It presupposes mass willingness to dissolve existing entities and national identities.
That does not exist on either side. The call for it functions only to demonise Israel and to legitimise the objective of subduing and crushing it. The good and desirable solution changes imperceptibly into a sanction for conquest, subjugation and as much violence to the Jews as necessary.
From an Arab nationalist point of view I can see the sense: but why should international socialists take responsibility for advocating or supporting the inverting of the present Jewish-Arab position? There can be no socialist or democratic reason.
But imperialism... A J Balfour somewhere talked of the Jewish colonists as creating a “little loyal Jewish Ulster” that would be England’s outpost. The actual course of events however is far more complex. Pretty quickly Britain concluded that the little loyal Jewish Ulster was more trouble than it was worth. By 1930 after the riots and pogroms of 1929 Sydney Webb with the initial backing of Prime Minister J R MacDonald, tried to kill off the Jewish National Home and retreated under fire.
After the Arab uprising of 36-38 Britain first came out for Partition (1937) and then retreated under Arab pressure until in 1939 it turned sharply against the Jews, closing the doors to Jewish immigration. On the eve of the Holocaust, Britain’s responsibility for the Jews, as Arabs saw it, had opened the possibility of an Arab-Nazi alliance in which Germany would use the Arabs against Britain as Britain had used them against the Turks in the First World War.
Britain maintained that hostile stance until it scuttled in 1947/8. The rigour and fanaticism with which Britain policed Palestine against Jewish refugees from 1939 to 1948 is a very ugly story.
Jim Higgins is right that fighting, including the indefensible massacre of Deir Yassin, preceded the Declaration of Israel; it is of no consequence. Britain had effectively abdicated the state power after the United Nations declared for partition in November 1947 and there was continuous fighting thereafter, with Jews and Arabs jockeying for position. Jewish Jerusalem suffered a long siege and the Jewish quarter of the old city fell to the Arabs. Deir Yassin is said to have been a link in the chain around Jerusalem, though nothing can excuse what happened there [it was immediately condemned by the mainstream Jewish forces].
The very next day nearly 60 Jewish medical personnel were ambushed and massacred...
In other words it was a horrible, communal war, involving outside Arab volunteers and then after 14th May 1948 invasion and attempted invasion by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and a task force of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Inevitably, Israel has relied on its US alliance: the Arabs too have made such alliances — with Russia and the USA.
The idea that American imperialism depends on Israel for “control of the Arabs” when it has friendly links with Egypt and Jordan and Saudi-Arabia is so far from any reasonable picture of Middle-Eastern reality as to be risible. Conor Cruise O’Brien in his valuable book, The Siege, makes a convincing case that the USA’s relationship to Israel a) owes more to the power of the Zionist lobby in the USA than to anything else and b) has actually hindered the USA in pursuing its real interests in the area. Amongst other things he shows that there have been many ups and downs in the relationship. Israel has pursued its own interests, playing states off against each other.
I will join Jim Higgins in morally condemning the whole system of world and regional power politics: I will take it as evidence of bias and prejudice when he condemns only, or especially, the Israelis.
But then he is awash with prejudice. The conflict from November 1947, when Britain began the process of withdrawal, in which perhaps three-quarters of a million Arabs fled or were driven out can only be blamed on the Jews alone if you deny them the right to defend themselves against armed attack — in May 1948 by five armies. Jim Higgins quotes Hal Draper.** The Trotskyists in 1948 did not support the Arabs! None of them, as far as I know, did. That sort of stuff came later.
Where in fact there was a war Jim has “Zionists” as the only aggressors: the “Zionists”, though they were under attack from November 1947 and earlier, “moved” in April 1948 — when Jewish Jerusalem was already besieged...
Where Jewish Jerusalem was besieged and fell, Jim sees only tales of Haganah attacking the Arab community in Jerusalem... Israel alone is the enemy of peace and socialism in the Middle East!
This is not history, not even on the level of honest narrative! Tell me Jim: should the Jews in 1948 have surrendered? Let themselves be massacred? Driven out? Where, in a world where Jewish Displaced Persons were still languishing in European camps, should they have gone? That wasn’t the Arabs’ problem? No, but it was the Jews’ problem: they resolved it by fighting and winning...
History is a messy business. Isaac Deutscher’s image for Jewish-Arab relations of the Jews as a man jumping out of the window of a burning building and accidentally injuring an innocent civilian down below, captures it, I think.
A Palestinian Arab state would be economically much weaker than the Jewish state? States have unequal wealth. He uses that as both an argument against the giant step forward for the Palestinians of having their own state and against the right of the Jewish nation not to be forced to dissolve itself!
It seems to me that in response to the tragic fate of the Palestinian Arabs, Jim Higgins and all his Arab nationalist co-thinkers in effect propose that we abandon a class interpretation of history in favour of an account in terms of good and bad peoples and the malignity of demonic forces like “Zionism”.
They abandon any attempt at an objective overall Marxist assessment of the history of the Arab-Jewish conflict, including factual accounts of what really happens and why. They settle uncritically into repeating the hurt account of the losers in a national conflict in which, had their side won in the ’30s and ’40s, they would have done to the other side everything that was done to them or worse. The underlying idea is that they would have had a right to...
Because Higgins and his co-thinkers are indignant at Israeli treatment of those they defeated, we demonise the Jews — “Zionists” — backwards in time for generations and forwards in time to the hoped-for day when the forces of progress, enlightenment, justice and righteousness — which just happen to include Saddam Hussein and the King of Saudi Arabia! — will triumph and conquer Israel.
They stigmatise Israel, surrounded by enemies, for its collaboration with imperialism, and ignore the connections of the Arab states with imperialism — right back to British-Arab collaboration during World War 2 to stop the Jewish national minority opening the gates of Palestine to Jews who otherwise faced annihilation.
They become vicarious Arab-nationalists who find unforgiveable even after half a century the uneasy and conflict ridden Jewish-British collaboration in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and pardon with a benign shrug of complacent shoulders the collaboration of Palestinian Arabs and, in the first place their leader, Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, with the Nazis for the specific purposes of a common programme of wiping out the Jews, who tried to organise a Muslim brigade to fight for Hitler and whose supporters organised a sizeable anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad in 1941 during the pro-Nazi Iraq coup of Raschid Ali.
Your viewpoint, Jim, is shaped and determined mechanically and comprehensively by the taking of sides with the defeated side — the “oppressed.”
But suppose the other side had won: suppose, to tell the shortest version of the story, that the Nazis, and their despised Arab clients had won — even temporarily, as they might have in the Middle East in 1941-2 — and that the half million Palestinian Jews had gone the way of the six million in Europe? Why then our sympathy would now be on the other side — with “the poor, poor Jews.”
The Palestinian Jews are on the other side of your good people/bad people divide because they did not let themselves be crushed, because, in a limited sphere, they prevailed.
Your standpoint has no point of contact with Marxism or even with the old-fashioned belief in the equality of peoples. For Marxists there are no bad peoples: conflicts between competing peoples contain more or less of a tragic element of right as against right. We look to working-class unity and reconciliation.
Socialists support the Palestinian Arab demand for liberation and justice — that is, for self-determination in an independent state on the territory where they now constitute a majority — but we do not demonise one people, or erect Zionism into a demon-ex-machina force above history: we see it in history; that is, we look at the real history, recognising that this is the only basis on which to prepare the force — the minds of the working class, Arab and Jewish — for the fundamental solution to the conflict: consistent democracy and socialism.
* Jim Higgins’ equation of the nationalist machinations of bourgeois Zionists during the war with the cold statement of Tony Cliff decades after the Holocaust that Jews should have been barred from Palestine before the war is very revealing.
** The quote from Hal Draper is misleading. Draper was a bitter critic of Israel; in the 50s he published very scathing and from anything other than a Jewish chauvinist point of view, unanswerable accounts of the systematic expropriation of Arab land within Israel. Draper continued to advocate the “de-Zionisation” of Israel. But he was not in favour of the subjugation and destruction of Israel. More to the point, the Workers’ Party in the 40s was outspokenly in favour of the right of Jews to go to Palestine. They wrote it into the programme they printed each week in Labor Action! It was a bone of contention between themselves and the Cannon organisation. The truth is that Jim Higgins’ politics and Tony Cliff’s politics on this question politics come out of the degenerating “Fourth International” of Pablo and Cannon, which broke in the 40s with the old Communist International and Leon Trotsky’s position on this question of Jewish migration. Tony Cliff, the honorary Arab nationalist, was one of the theorists of this break and descent into vicarious Arab revolution.