At the age of nineteen, soon after I joined the organisation Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, I remember entering the students’ union at Newcastle University while being heckled by a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, who called me “a fucking Zionist”. I confess, at that moment, I had no idea what the word Zionist meant, but I gathered immediately that it was a left-wing slur: the delivery felt just as venomous in its derogatory intent to being called, by racists, “a fucking Paki”. Soon after, I learnt more about my organisation’s ‘two nations, two states’ position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a stand-alone position in relation to the majority of the rest of the British revolutionary Left.
Over the years since, the unease I have had with much of the revolutionary and academic Left vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict stems from their historical and contemporary representation of Israel as a uniquely demonic state. There are several features of this, which I have observed:
- The conflation of the Israeli state and military to the entire population of Israel;
- A writing-off of the Israeli working class;
- A litmus test for sections of Israeli society (take, for instance, Israeli academics) to prove themselves as properly critical of Israel (a test not required of any other academics in any other nation-state);
- A definition of Jewish nationalism, i.e. Zionism, as colonialism, imperialism, and racism;
- An equivalence of the nation-state of Israel proper to apartheid South Africa;
- An equivalence of the Israeli state and military to Nazi Germany;
- A proposal to ‘logically undo’ the existence of the nation-state of Israel (cloaked under the demand for one secular Palestinian state / one shared space, or the right of return).
This singling out, this conflation, this testing, this writing-off, and this equivalence of exceptional barbarity, all signify a particular, left-wing anti-Semitism: is no other nation-state in the world racist and exclusionary? Is no other nation-state in the world guilty of oppressing minority groups inside and/or outside of its territory? Is no other nation-state in the world expansionist and imperialist? Is there any other working class in the world which is dismissed as non-existent or too-far-gone? Is there no other working class in the world that succumbs to the reactionary ideas of their hegemonic state? Is there any other nation-state in the world that is demanded to be undone?
The following two sections offer an interesting juxtaposition. In section I, I identify the dominant leftist narrative on the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as found in the academic social sciences literature. In section II, I quote extracts of two articles (one from India’s The Hindu newspaper and the other from The Washington Post) that compare Pakistan to Israel. There is no room for section II in the narrative of section I since Israel as a modern nation-state is deemed exceptional.
The crimes committed by the Israeli state and military against the Palestinians, the colonial occupation and expansionism outside of Israel proper into the West Bank and Gaza, and the perpetual denial of a meaningful ‘two nations, two states’ settlement on pre-1967 borders by the Israeli ruling class (and its growing religious fundamentalist wing) must be condemned, and solidarity with the secular Palestinian plight for their own nation-state must be made. All of this is possible without exceptionalising Israel.
I. ‘Israel is exceptional in its unique equivalence to South African apartheid and Nazi fascism’, so says the cross-Atlantic academic Left…
The cross-Atlantic academic Left offers a particular history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has much in common with a dominant section of the revolutionary Left. A central theme is that of a premeditated Zionist ethnic cleansing. This takes up and develops the new historian Pappé’s (2006) call for the paradigm of war to be replaced with a paradigm of ethnic cleansing in scholarly and public debate on 1948, in order to redress the erasure of this Zionist crime from global memory and conscience. In other words, Pappé (2006, page 9) rejects the notion that the exile of three-quarters of a million Palestinians was an outcome of the 1948 war itself, but rather “the result of long and meticulous planning” by the Zionists to ethnic cleanse the Palestinian population. He reveals the objective of a Zionist “Plan D” as the systematic elimination of Palestinians from Palestinian territory in order to make possible the nation-state of Israel, with the 1948 war providing the means to carry this out (Pappé, 2006, page 6). Following Pappé’s call, Finkelstein (2002) argues that the 1948 war was exploited by the Zionists in a manner similar to the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo during the 1999 NATO intervention. Falah (2003, page 206) characterises this “ethnic cleansing” as part of a pre-1948 Zionist ‘enclaving’ of Palestinian land that combined immigration and land purchase, military terrorism, a strategy of creating ‘facts on the ground’, and a settlement frontier, wherein the early Zionist settlers, Said (1985) contends, either totally overlooked the Palestinians or actively plotted to get rid of them.
On the character of Zionism and the nation-state of Israel, the cross-Atlantic academic left narrative asserts, “[t]he Zionist dream of uniting the diaspora in a Jewish state was by its very nature a colonial project” (Gregory, 2004a, page 78; see also: Anderson, 2001; Falah, 1996, 2003, 2004; Khalidi, 2003; Piterberg, 2001; Said, 1985). The assessment of the pre-1948 relationship of British imperialism to Zionism ranges from that of “an unambiguous product of inter-imperialist calculation” (Anderson, 2001, page 7) to that of “Janus-faced” collaboration (Gregory, 2004a, page 80). Anderson (2001, page 15) claims that “the imperial baton” passed from Britain to the United States in 1948, whereas Gregory (2004a, page 77) suggests “fitful” interest on the part of US imperialism until the 1967 war. Nonetheless, consensus exists on the post-1967 era, in which the link between the Israeli nation-state, the US Zionist lobby, and US imperialism is given high significance: particularly in “the unprecedented munificence that the United States bestows on Israel”, that is, “the moral equivalent of a blank cheque to do what it likes” (Said, 1986, page 79; see also: Said, 2000). Given the Zionist intention to expel on a mass scale was “inherent” long before 1948 (Piterberg, 2001, page 34), the nation-state of Israel is thus defined as originating in “racist national ideals” cloaked “often in ‘socialist’ guise” (Falah, 2003, page 187) – a semblance made of the early kibbutzim settlement (see: Said, 1985), for instance. It is claimed that, while many Israelis continue to desire the expulsion of Palestinians, ethnic cleansing is now no longer a politically viable option so apartheid takes its place (Finkelstein, 2002). Israel’s legal foundations (specifically, the Law of Return, the Nationality Law, the status of present-absentees, and the prevention of the right of return for Palestinian refugees) are seen as a continued part of a pre-1948 quest for national and racial purity which is “tantamount to organized discrimination or persecution” akin to apartheid South Africa and/or Nazi Germany (Said, 1985, page 41; see also: Falah, 2003; Finkelstein, 2002; Piterberg, 2001). [For further comparison of the ideology and practice of Israel (including the Israeli Defence Force) with that of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, see, for instance, Graham (2002, 2003); Gregory (2004a); Jamoul (2004); and Roy (2002). On the unique ‘democratic fascism’ of the Zionist state and military, see Falah (2001).]
In conclusion, for Gregory (2004a, page 138), echoing Said (1985), the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes down to a question of “justice” for the Palestinians. Gregory (2004b, page 602) argues that “the key date” for “many on the Israeli Left” is not 1948 (like for the majority of the Palestinians) but 1967, yet this latter war (occupying, to date, the West Bank and Gaza Strip) was merely further military advance by Israel. In other words, the outcome of the 1948 war, the al Nakba, was and remains a colonial occupation of Palestine (Falah, 2003; Gregory, 2004b; Sidaway 2000; Young 2001), and the ultimate issue on the conflict is one of redress and liberation for the injured, oppressed, and occupied side. Because Israel is historically based on a principle of return and non-return for Jews and Arabs respectively, if this disappeared, Piterburg (2001, page 36) postulates, the Zionist nation-state of Israel would “lose its identity”. Or, as put by Karmi (2007), one should question why this nation-state continues to exist at all.
II. Israel is not exceptional, take, for example, a comparison to Pakistan…
From “Separated at birth” by Saif Shahin, published in The Hindu newspaper in 2012:
Both Pakistan and Israel were carved out through partitions of historically and culturally unified territories within a year of each other: Pakistan in August 1947 and Israel in May 1948. Pakistan was created by splitting the Indian subcontinent, tearing asunder people who, while belonging to different religions, shared a common cultural heritage and had together fought their war of Independence. It created fissures even within ethnic communities – Punjabis in the west, Bengalis in the east and, a year later, Kashmiris in the north. The same happened when Israel was carved out of historical Palestine, dividing Arabs to the west of the Jordan river for the first time.
Two, neither partition was peaceful. Hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their homes in both instances to become refugees in what, just days earlier, had been their own land. Pakistan’s creation saw more than 10 million people migrate on either side of the border, many driven away by their neighbours. Nearly a million are believed to have died in the pogroms that ensued. While eloquent espousals of nationalism and patriotism poured out of leaders at bully pulpits, the slit throats of citizens spattered blood in the streets.
Israel’s creation was similarly gory. More than 700,000 Palestinians were hounded out of their homes by Zionist militias in what the Arabs have since called the Nakba, or catastrophe. Thousands perished. Many migrated to West Bank, Gaza and the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan and the Sinai; many others fled to Europe and the United States – places from where harried Jews had been moving to Palestine in preceding decades to escape persecution. One diaspora replaced another, and Arab became the new Jew of the West. The irony was profound.
Three, neither Pakistan nor Israel has clearly defined its borders since its creation. It’s not just that their neighbours don’t agree with them, but both these nations have themselves stopped short of stating precisely where they want their borders to be. While India categorically specifies the borders it claims in Kashmir, Pakistan’s position is ambiguous at best. It calls the portion it conquered in 1947-48 “Azad Kashmir” (Independent Kashmir), but Pakistan’s army exercises even more control over the lives of Azad Kashmiris than over the average Pakistani. It even has an Azad Kashmir Regiment – headquartered in Punjab.
Israel has also desisted from stating exactly how large or small it intends to be. For more than 20 years, even the Palestinian Authority has recognised the so-called Green Line – which defined Israeli territory until the 1967 war – as the international border subject to a two-state solution (that would create a Palestinian state). Israel itself, however, does not recognise the Green Line anymore. Nor does it say where it would draw its own Line, all the while grabbing more land in the West Bank for Jewish settlements.
Four, both Pakistan and Israel have fought wars of aggression against neighbours. The India-Pakistan conflicts of 1947-48, 1965 and 1999 were the result of Pakistani aggression. It also waged a proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a misadventure from which it is yet to dissociate itself. Israel’s wars are still more numerous. It attacked Egypt in 1956, Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on numerous occasions. Gaza remains under Israeli siege even today.
Dominated by religion, military
Five, being born in blood and bred in wars, both Pakistan and Israel have developed societies and polities that are dominated by religion and the military. The green uniform has been at the helm of Pakistan’s affairs for nearly half its independent history, and lords over politicians even when not formally in charge. Its hand has been strengthened by the appropriation of Islam as a political ideology, and the nation is effectively run by a nexus of generals and mullahs.
Israel’s military has similarly clawed its way into the heart of the nation’s society and politics in the name of protecting its Jewish character. Making a name for yourself in wars is the surest way to a successful political career, ministerial posts and prime ministership. Just like Pakistan, Israel seems to be run by a league of generals and rabbis.
Six, both Pakistan and Israel nurture exclusivist national identities, concerned more with who does not belong to them than with who does. Created as a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan has always treated Hindus, Sikhs and other non-Muslims as second-class citizens. But that isn’t all.
Various categories of Muslims – migrants from India, Ahmadis, Shias, Baluchis and so on – have also found it difficult to integrate into Pakistani society and are perpetually blamed for all its social and political ills.
Israel was created as a homeland for Jews, and it treats Arabs as second-class citizens. But many Jews too – black Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Russian-origin Jews and so on – face rampant discrimination. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Jewish ancestry are simply not considered Jews by law and struggle to be a part of Israeli society.
Benedict Anderson has called nations “imagined communities,” comprising people who share a deep bond of unity even with those they have never met or do not personally know. But Pakistan and Israel exhibit an extraordinary lack of imagination in the construction of their nationhood. Exclusivist identities, religious chauvinism, military dominance and a history of belligerence have rendered them societies that are perpetually at war – with their neighbours and with themselves. Their own uncertainty over their borders betrays this existential insecurity.
From “The Pakistani origins of the Israeli state” by Ishaan Tharoor, published in The Washington Post in 2014:
“Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state,” said then Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq in 1981. “Take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.” It’s a strange thing to think about now. Pakistan and Israel are, on the face of it, not kindred spirits. […] But Zia, an instrumental figure in the Islamization of Pakistani society, was saying something quite obvious: Pakistan and Israel are historical twins.
They emerged as independent states one after the other – Pakistan in 1947, Israel in 1948 – following the retreat of the British empire. They were born in blood: Pakistan in the grisly Partition that cleaved British India in two, Israel in the battles of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. And ideologically, as Zia noted, they were both states whose raison d’etre was religion, or at least religious identity. Pakistan was dreamed up as a haven for Indian Muslims, a state that transcended geography itself with a western and eastern wing suspended in between thousands of miles of India. […] Israel was the product of decades of Zionist activism, brought into being after the horrors of the Holocaust as a homeland for Europe’s tormented Jewry. Even this cause had an echo in South Asia. Pakistan’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah was well-versed in the Zionist plight, since he too wanted to make a nation out of a religious community. As the Oxford historian Faisal Devji writes in his book “Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea,” Jinnah “seems to have possessed more books on the problems of European Jewry than on any Muslim people or country.” That’s not too surprising, given that Jinnah was not particularly religious and envisioned a Pakistani nation that, while defined by Islam, was not necessarily governed by its laws. A similar secular theme ran through the Israeli state.
More tellingly, Pakistan made a direct impression on Israel’s rulers in the first years of the country’s existence. In a Haaretz article excerpting work from a new book on Israel and the question of apartheid, South African-born author Benjamin Pogrund explored how Israel followed Pakistan’s lead when it came to administering lands and property captured from the Palestinians who had lived there before. Pogrund writes of the challenge that faced David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, in 1948:
“In the government debates to decide what to do with the Arab “abandoned property,” the prime minister’s special adviser on land and border demarcation, Zalman Lifshitz, argued for the permanent use of refugee property for the political and economic benefit of the new state. He said that countries in similar situations, such as Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, had taken on vast powers to liquidate refugee property for state use and he urged the Israeli government “to proceed in a similar manner” as “there is no shortage of precedents.””
The laws Lifshitz got enacted in 1949, Pogrund writes, were “based squarely” on Pakistani precedent. During Partition, millions of Hindus and Sikhs had fled what became Pakistan, leaving behind property and assets that could be appropriated on behalf of the millions of Muslim refugees streaming in from the other side of the border. For Lifshitz, Pogrund explains, a similar solution made sense for Israel’s Jewish arrivals.
“It cannot be said if Lifshitz was aware of the irony of the new Jewish state using the legal techniques of a new Muslim state to deprive its own mainly Muslim refugees of their properties. Whichever, he proposed “a new law, similar to the… Pakistani regulations and based on the principles they contain.” Pakistani lawmakers, he noted, had drawn on Britain’s Trading with the Enemy Act, but had also introduced new elements to assist expropriation and transfer of ownership: they had created a mechanism for seizing Hindu and Sikh refugee property in Pakistan and its reallocation for the settlement of Muslim refugees from India.”
This curious irony could be chalked off as a quirk of history. But both Israel and Pakistan are still grappling with their fragile ideological identities to this day. Jinnah’s dream has so far proved illusory: in 1971, East Pakistan split away following a brutal revolutionary war and became the independent state of Bangladesh. Ethnic and linguistic nationalism trumped a pan-Islamic identity. Subsequent Pakistani governments have both encouraged rampant Islamism and then struggled to contain its extremist, militant off-shoots. In Israel, the question of how to reconcile with the Arabs on its borders and in its midst remains as potent and vexing now as it did more than half a century ago. As WorldViews has written about before, the right-wing government of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown little will to enable the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Some of Netanyahu’s allies have specifically ruled it out. And Netanyahu himself is attempting to push through a controversial law that would cement Israel’s status as a “Jewish nation-state,” privileging the collective rights of Israeli Jews over the interests of Israeli minorities. It’s a proposal that plays well among Israel’s right-wing, including communities of settlers living in the West Bank. But it has its critics, too. “Israelis not in the thrall of settler fanaticism need to decide whether they want to be part of the democratic Western world or not,” wrote Israeli intellectual Bernard Avishai in the New Yorker this week. He then offered this tidy comparison: “The Jewish nation-state law puts the choice starkly: a globalist Hebrew republic or a little Jewish Pakistan.”
My sincere thanks to comrade Omar Raii for alerting me to the Tharoor article.
Further recommended reading / listening by me (Camila Bassi)
Bassi C, 2011, “The inane politics of Tony Cliff.” Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism 3(2), 1601-1610
Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: what should the Left say?
Workers’ Liberty resources
Is Israel like apartheid South Africa?
Zionism, anti-semitism and the left
Israel-Palestine: Two Nations, Two States!
Blog post references
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