Wielmowicki, José. “The National Question in Palestine and Israel” (2018)


In this article, José Wielmowicki (PSTU Brazil) analyzes the historical development of Zionism and the colonial project that it has undertaken in Palestine. The article ends with an analysis of the current situation in Palestine, and compares it to the Apartheid system in South Africa

The National Question in Palestine and Israel

By José Wielmowicki (2018), edited and translated to English by Carlos Sapir (2021)
We can begin with the origins of Zionism, the political movement that produced this catastrophe––the creation of a state “to provide safe harbor to the Jewish people” which has since its inception been defined on ethnically segregated lines. The definition of Israel as a Jewish state necessarily generated a catastrophic situation. Such a state would require the majority of its population to be Jewish. But, prior to the establishment of Israel, the broad majority of the population in Palestine was Arab. Given this situation, how could the Zionists turn their political project into a reality? Only by expelling the majority of the existing population, the Palestinians, and preventing them from ever returning.
The Nakba was not merely a convenient outcome caused by a “defensive war against reactionary feudal Arab states”, as the Zionist leadership has always framed it, today referring to the 48-49 War as the War of Israeli Independence. The Nakba was an ethnic cleansing operation, authorized with the blessing of the UN thanks to its 1947 partition plan. The Nakba was planned in advance, with various phases of preparation also preceding the UN’s announcement so as to guarantee that the land of the British Mandate in Palestine would be “liberated” from its Arab residents to provide for a Jewish majority on Palestinian land. This project was planned down to the detail by the general leadership of the Zionist movement, led at the time by David Ben Gurion, and is well-documented in the book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who had access to Israeli archives and was able to document the operation in all of its detail, proving false each and every one of the innumerable retellings of the origin story told by the successive governments of Israel.
The evolution of this state, its racist character, its status as a military enclave aligned with imperialism (and its leading power, the United States), and its total rejection of either undergoing a democratic transformation or the acceptance of a workable “two-state”-style with equal rights and privileges, all have a theoretical basis in the theory and program laid out by the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, towards the end of the 19th century.

European Judaism before Zionism

Abram Leon was a young militant who broke with Zionism (specifically, the left-Zionist group HaShomer HaTzair) and affiliated with the Fourth International shortly before the outbreak of World War II. He wrote a text of enormous value: he applied Marxist methods to the Jewish Question (i.e. the question of how to reconcile Jewish identity with the various other national, political and religious communities of Europe, and the oppression faced by Jews there). Rejecting Zionist and religious explanations, he attributed the persecution of the Jewish people not to some intrinsic feature of their religion nor their racial background, but rather to their material conditions, the economic and social relationships that they lived through. His book, The Materialist Conception of the Jewish Question, was an attempt to develop an answer using this methodology. The roots of the situation faced by Jews in the modern world can be traced to the economic conditions in which Jews found themselves in pre-capitalist Europe, forced to primarily work as merchants and moneylenders in a society where capital was not yet king.
This base produced a cultural superstructure that would accommodate it. Restricted to a narrow set of mercantile trades, European Jews became a “people-class”. While the details of Leon’s work can be disputed, this characterization of the Jewish people’s position in feudal European society is key: Jews played the role of commercial and financial middlemen, and were easy scapegoats for feudal lords who wanted to misdirect peasants’ frustration with the status quo away from the actual halls of power.
By the 19th century, the majority of the European Jewish population, and particularly the Ashkenazi Jewish population (historically the largest ethnic subgroup), lived in Eastern Europe, where they faced discrimination, segregation, and persecution. This was not an inevitable outcome, nor was it a product of the Jewish religion itself. Jews in some parts of Europe enjoyed equal rights to non-Jews by the 19th century. In Western Europe, following the French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Jews were legally emancipated, and the principles of liberty promoted by the Revolution were extended to them. Napoleon struck down laws that forced Jews to live in ghettos, prevented them from owning property, practicing their religion freely, and barred them from various professional trades.

Early years of Zionism

Zionism is a political movement based on a flawed theoretical basis, and a mistaken understanding of history. It addressed a real and pressing problem: the persecution of Jews, spread across myriad countries where they faced repression, particularly in the territory known as the Yiddishland, an informal region overlapping the territory of various countries in Eastern Europe where Jews, and particularly Yiddish-speaking Jews, were primarily concentrated. The Zionist answer, however, was to attribute Jewish persecution to an intrinsic incompatibility between Jews and non-Jews, based either on religious or racial differences. Whether the contradiction was religious or racial, the Zionists agreed on their single solution: to evacuate Jews to a territory where they would found a nation-state that would permanently maintain a Jewish majority within its borders.
In its early years, from the end of the 19th century until the 1930s, the Zionists failed to win over a majority of the Jewish population to their cause. They were countered by Marxists, who upheld the fight for socialism and against discrimination for all oppressed peoples, and who saw their numbers swell following the Russian Revolution’s successful defeat of the Tsar and the establishment of the worlds’ first workers’ state. The Zionist call to immigrate to Palestine did not make significant inroads with the Jewish population until the 1930s, when it received new support thanks to the dual pressures of Nazism in central Europe and the Stalinist turn in the Soviet Union.

The various tendencies of Zionism

The so-called “socialist” Zionists (also known as labor Zionists) were a political movement that on the surface appeared to be a popular, progressive movement, not least because of the level of influence of socialists and trade-unionists in the eastern European communities that Zionists came from. But, in taking up the Zionist cause, they abandoned any hope of political unity with the workers already living in the land, the Palestinians.
This generation of Zionists would provide the first leaders of the Zionist movement in Palestine and the political parties that would define the first few decades of the Israeli state. These people established the Histadrut, which was nominally a central union for Israeli workers, but in reality was an organization that worked to segregate Jewish labor away from Palestinian labor, to encourage employers to only hire Jews and promote cross-class unity among Jews, and to directly participate in coordinating segregated Jewish settlement and military presence in Palestine. The Israeli kibbutzim (singular: kibbutz) were presented as collectivist communes, but while they embraced some aspects of communistic life for Jewish settlers, in reality functioned as colonial outposts to expand and defend Jewish territories, which provided no basis for collaboration or coexistence with Arab peasants and proletarians. Thus, Zionist “socialism”, instead of fighting for the workers of the world to unite, was fighting to keep Jewish and Arab workers separate (the more collectivist trappings of kibbutz life for Jews would also eventually disappear, with kibbutzim progressively integrating with more typical capitalist production and lifestyles over time).
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the “revisionist Zionist” tendency and author of The Iron Wall, promoted a racist interpretation of the Jewish Question. According to Jabotinsky, it was impossible to assimilate Jews and other “races” due to an incompatibility of their “bloodlines”. In his view, preserving the future of the Jewish state would only be possible if it was kept racially pure. Much like the racist Afrikaner attitudes to the black population of South Africa, Jabotinsky believed that the Palestinians comprised an inferior race, and that it should be forbidden to mix the populations. The Revisionists formed an influential minority in the first several decades of Zionist colonization, and are the progenitors of the political parties that now form the secular right wing in Israeli politics, such as Likud and Yamina. A final, third branch of Zionism, religious Zionism, emphasizes a primarily religious motivation for a Jewish state and supports more theocratic policies, such as strict enforcement of various religious rules and concessions to ultra-orthodox Jewish communities. This tendency was very marginal in the early years of Zionism, but has risen to prominence following the annexation of Jerusalem and occupation of the West Bank beginning in 1967, and recent years have seen the rise of a right-wing overlap of the religious and revisionist camps, best exemplified by parties like The Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi).
The main branches of Zionism could agree, however, on the plan of “transferring” Palestinians out of Jewish-owned territories in Palestine, a consensus position across the majority “left” labor Zionists and minority of “right” revisionists. The Palestinians were to be expelled and their lands taken by force, but in order to do this the Zionists first needed the sovereign authority of a state. Thus, the Zionist movement consolidated behind a single key goal: the establishment of an exclusively Jewish state, exemplified by their slogan “A land without a people for a people without a land”.
It was thanks to this programmatic unity that labor and revisionist Zionists were able to unite and form a single military apparatus, and eventually a state, and were united in the key actions undertaken by these bodies: the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, actively carried out by the military and abetted by the defense industry. Their political unity also allowed for the establishment of many coalition governments between the Labor and Communist parties and the right-wing Likud. The differences between the Zionist factions were always primarily tactical, while sharing a unified strategy.
Ilan Pappé has exhaustively documented in his work how the ethnic cleansing was planned. The outline of this plan was developed far in advance of the establishment of a Jewish state, with the early Zionist settlers already planning to evict the vast majority of Palestinians from their land. Zionism got a boost thanks to the chaos caused by the Nazi genocide of the European Jewish population (a terrible massacre that the Palestinians had nothing to do with), leaving millions more European Jews homeless and in many cases stateless, pushing many of them to immigrate to Palestine for lack of better options and turning the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine into a convenient solution for European states unwilling to reintegrate the displaced Jewish population. In order to fulfill their dream of a majority-Jewish state in Palestine, Zionists aligned themselves with the international imperialist system and formed alliances with the leading imperial powers of the day.

Israel, guard dog of imperialism

From its inception, the Zionist movement appealed to the ruling powers on the global stage for support in their project, first appealing to the Ottomans, as well as making overtures to the British crown, Russian Tzar and German Kaiser to support what was framed as a Jewish colonial project. Following the establishment of the British Mandate, the Zionists had an inconsistent relationship with the British, at times appealing to them to allow for increased Jewish immigration and settlement, and at other times engaging in terrorist and guerrilla attacks against British targets to pressure the British to pull out and allow for the establishment of an independent Jewish state. The British, for their part, had only their own colonial interests in mind, and vacillated between supporting the establishment of a Jewish state friendly to their interests (echoing contemporaneous French policy of carving off a Maronite Christian-dominated Lebanon from their demographically diverse Syrian possessions), and establishing an Arab monarchy to be their puppet government, as they did in other territories in their sphere of influence such as Egypt, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula. Jewish–British collaboration rose sharply following the Arab Revolt of 1936, which united the Zionists and British imperialists in military struggle against an Arab uprising led by the Hashemite monarchy but which received mass support from the Arab peasantry and proletariat.
In 1947, the UN would vote to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, in UN Resolution 181. The proposal also included provisions for Jerusalem to be an international territory separate from either state. The Jewish state would be allocated 56% of the land of Palestine, although Jews only comprised about a third of the population at this point. The resolution was supported by the USSR, US, France, and most countries within their respective spheres of influence. It was opposed by every state in the Middle East, as well as India and Pakistan, themselves only recently partitioned out of British India. Britain abstained following extensive debate in Parliament, and withdrew from the region unilaterally in minimal compliance with the resolution. Low scale violence between Jewish and Palestinian militias began immediately following the announcement of the resolution, and escalated to civil war and ethnic cleansing. At the end of the war, only 138,000 Palestinians remained in the Israeli territory. Land belonging to Palestinians who left was confiscated by the Israeli state. Palestinian refugees fled primarily to neighboring Arab states, but also to various other locations including the US and Latin America.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel, Israel would enthusiastically collaborate with French and British interests against its neighboring Arab states, most famously in the Suez Crisis of 1956, where Israeli forces invaded  Egypt with British and French support to seize the Suez Canal and depose Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had recently overthrown the British-backed Egyptian monarchy in a coup. Following the confirmation of Israel as a regional military power after the 1967 War, it received increasingly large amounts of military support from the United States, turning the military industry into Israel’s main economic sector and ensuring that Israel would have a massive materiel advantage over the Palestinian resistance and neighboring states. Israeli interventions would continue with various military operations across the Middle East (including an invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and again in 2006), and even sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South America in the 1980s.
Since 2008, US military sales to Middle Eastern states have come with the stipulation that the weapons may not be used against Israel. The value of arms sales between the US and Israel have grown year after year, regardless of whether those governments were led by Democrats or Republicans. During the Clinton administration, the value of sales was $26.7 billion; during the Bush administration: $30 billion; during Obama: $36 billion. A significant portion of these deals is earmarked for joint-production agreements, such as one signed in 2014, where Israeli and US military firms worked together to develop the anti-rocket defense system known as the Iron Dome.
Israel’s role in the international division of labor is to be a global arms supplier, as well as a trainer of police and military forces around the world. The following is a quote from the International Network of Anti-Zionist Jews:

    “Israel’s unique experience in the dispersion of populations, surveillance, displacement, and military occupation have placed it at the vanguard of the global repression industries: it develops, assembles, and sells technology that is used by military and police forces around the world to repress people. Israel’s role in this industry began with the Israeli military, which first used its weapons against the Palestinian people within historic Palestine, and later against neighboring countries. In the past few years, as global interest in surveillance and repression technologies has grown, Israeli firms have advertised their products as “field tested” for “domestic security”. This industry comprises government agencies, the Israeli military, and a network of private corporations that earned more than 2.7 billion dollars in 2008.”

This economic-political specialty of Israel’s has had a significant footprint in Latin America. During the age of dictatorships from the late 1970s through the 1980s, Israel sold its most recognizable weapons, the Uzi submachine gun and the Gallil rifle, to death squads in Guatemala, the Contras in Nicaragua, and Pinochet’s army in Chile. During this period, Israel earned more than $1 billion from its arms sales to dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Pinochet’s dictatorship purchased crowd control weapons from Israel from 1973 until 1990.
According to the website of Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Work,

“Israel has more than 300 domestic security companies which export a high proportion of their products, services and systems…These solutions have been produced by Israel’s need for hyper vigilance and matured alongside the reality of continued terrorist threats against the country…No other country has such a high proportion of policemen, soldiers, and retired military professionals, and no other country has been able to put its systems and solutions into practice in real time”.
    “The Israeli government and its corporations play an important role in the national politics of Brazil, its crowd control methods, its surveillance systems, its prisons, and its armed border checkpoints. Together with other domestic policies, the training of police and the provision of their arms and equipment are part of Brazil’s anti-favela campaign.”

The Israeli company Elbit, one of the companies involved in building the “Apartheid Wall” around the Palestinian territories, also participated in constructing and providing surveillance technology for the US-Mexico border wall, better known as the “Wall of Death”.

Comparisons with South Africa

During the same time period as the establishment of the State of Israel, South Africa was also founded as a white, racist state, supported by Afrikaner and British colonists. It had the same theoretical and material base as Zionism: a group of white, European colonizers arriving on African land, populated by Black people, and establishing a state that enshrined racial laws, known as apartheid in Afrikaans, which denied basic rights to the majority of the population and sought to establish permanent minority rule for whites by relegating Africans to “bantustans” where they were subject to fierce repression. The situation for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza today is very similar to what Africans suffered under Apartheid: they have nominal “sovereignty” in the form of the Palestinian Authority, but all of the power is held by the colonial power, Israel. They are denied the freedom of movement both between regions under the PA’s authority, and between the nominally Palestinian territories and Israel itself, and are barred from entering regions that have been earmarked for Jewish settlement. These rules are codified by a series of “Administrative Regulations”, based directly on South Africa’s apartheid laws.
These laws place Palestinians at the mercy of “commissaries” with the power to detain, transfer, and deport the residents of Arab regions, to confiscate their possessions, raid houses without warning or pretext, place employment restrictions, and more. Violations of these laws by Palestinians are tried in military courts, which have a 99% conviction rate for Palestinian defendants. These are just a handful of the racist restrictions faced by Palestinians.
South Africa’s role in fighting against decolonization in other African countries from the 1960s to 1990s is also reminiscent of Israel’s role as regional policeman. While South Africa intervened in Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia, and supported racist forces in former Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), Israel has done the same in its neighborhood. This is why antiracist movements in South Africa  have always stood in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. There was extensive collaboration between the white racist bourgeoisie of South Africa and the Zionist leadership in Israel since 1948. Israel armed and trained the soldiers of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia; in response, a deep bond of solidarity grew between the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and in Palestine, which still exists today. South Africa also provides the mold for boycotts as a tool against racist states, which severely impeded the racist South Africans, setting the example for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement today.

A racist enclave

The status of Israel as a racist enclave was fiercely debated in the first few years of the Zionist state. The mirage of progressive Zionism and the idea that kibbutzim were socialist colonies still persisted. This supposedly progressive and democratic image was contrasted in the media and even by left-reformists against supposedly “backwards” Palestinians (and Arabs more generally). Israeli propaganda promoting a self-image of the state as a David fighting against Goliaths (based on the relative populations and territorial size of Israel and neighboring states) further contributed to this perception.
But Israel did not stop its territorial expansion, bringing its racist policies to new territories all while continuing to encourage Jewish immigration to displace Palestinians, all while denying return to the refugees expelled by ethnic cleansing. In other words, the Nakba, which began 70 years ago, continues today. The basis of the Israeli state blocks any possibility of a democratic resolution, as it bases its self-definition on racist grounds, reserving full citizenship only to the Jewish population. There is no reason to expect Israel’s leadership to make any concessions to the Palestinian people. For the Zionists, the only solution to the conflict is that the Palestinian refugees must accept their expulsion, and that those who still live in Palestine accept their status as second-class citizens.
In 2018, Israel’s Knesset (parliament) openly embraced apartheid by approving a new Basic Law (analogous to amending the country’s constitution). This new law officially defines Israel as a state solely of the Jewish people. It codifies Jewish settlements throughout Palestine as being part of the State of Israel, to be defended by force. The Arab population is left with a status below citizenship, and Arabic is no longer considered an official language of the state. The passing of this law drew broad condemnation from Israel’s Arab population, including from its Druze population, an indigenous ethno-religious minority whose population in Palestine has historically broadly supported the Israeli state (although the Druze population of the Golan Heights, a portion of Syria annexed by Israel following the 1967 War, has consistently opposed the Israeli state). This law openly codifies Israel as a racist state.
The Druze are a minority sect that Zionists attempted to cleave from the rest of the Palestinian population since the beginning of the Nakba, to such a degree that many of them serve in the Israeli military, which includes high ranking Druze officers. The Druze population joined in protests against the new basic law because it excluded them from citizenship alongside the rest of the Palestinian population. In the words of Jewish Voice for Peace’s chief rabbi Alissa Wise:

    “Today, we abandon once and for all the illusion that Israel is a democracy. The nation-state project that Israel approved today consolidates Israel as an apartheid state–from the West Bank to Gaza, to Jerusalem and to Haifa. Palestinians, wherever they live, are controlled by a government and armed forces that deny them of basic rights and liberties”

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