Socialist Zionism Panel at Socialism 2017 Conference
Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine
Chicago, July 7, 2017
Let’s start at the beginning: In the narrative of the oppressed – in this case, the Palestinian narrative — “Israel” is not a place, but a colonial-settler regime. Just as Zimbabwe was never “Rhodesia,” all “Israel” is occupied Palestine.
Therefore, the “Occupation” is not just the West Bank and Gaza, which have been Israeli-occupied since 1967, but every inch of land stolen by the Zionist state since 1948. In the Palestinian narrative, “Israel” or “Israel proper” are known as 1948 Palestine, or simply ’48. Conversely a free Palestine refers to *all* of Palestine, from the river to the sea, with equal rights for all its inhabitants.
Think: Make Israel Palestine Again.
Against that narrative is “Progressive Except for Palestine” (PEP), which reflects Zionism’s long-term impact on the U.S. left, specifically through the misappropriation and misapplication of the right of national self-determination, civil rights, even “socialism” itself, to Israeli settler-colonialism, and often linked to the notion of binationalism.
As discussed by Tikva Honig-Parnass and others, this misappropriation was spearheaded by the Histadrut, the Zionist labor federation, which was the Israeli state-in-waiting until 1948, and then ruled the Zionist regime for its first 30 years. Even before that, the social democratic Second International supported Labor Zionism as part of its overall support for imperialism: both the First World War “at home,” and colonialism abroad. Indeed, imperialist regimes like Britain saw Zionism as a way to undermine Bolshevism and the October Revolution of 1917. It’s no surprise that, to this day, the Histadrut is closely aligned with the Second International.
In the late 1930s and 1940s, at the Histadrut’s behest, social democratic garment union leaders in this country enlisted both the AFL and CIO — they were separate federations until 1955 — to loudly demand establishment of a “Jewish state” in Palestine.
This misappropriation of the right to national self-determination and other genuinely-socialist principles was also adopted by the non-Social Democratic left. In the 1920s and 1930s, virtually all communists and socialists had staunchly denounced Zionism as a reactionary, colonial movement. But during the Second World War, Stalin supported a “Jewish state” in Palestine, mainly in the delusional hope of helping Russia replace Britain as the dominant imperial power in the Middle East.
Toward that end, he sent 142,000 displaced Eastern European Jews – willing or not – to displace indigenous Palestinians, organized the necessary two-thirds majority for UN partition in 1947, armed the Zionist militias that carried out the Nakba, and made Russia the first country to recognize the Israeli regime. As U.S. Communist Party chief William Z. Foster wrote in the early 1950s:
“The only true friend of the Jewish people in their fight for national freedom was the Soviet Union, which steadfastly supported the setting-up of the longed-for homeland of the Jews. . . . Eventually, the Jewish masses themselves virtually settled the matter by establishing the Republic of Israel, in May 1948. They then defended their government, arms in hand, against the British-inspired attacks from the neighboring Arab governments. . . . Within the United States. . . . [t]he Communist Party took a very active part in the whole struggle.”
Ironically, some Trotskyists took a virtually identical position. Amidst the Nakba, Hal Draper stated the majority view of the Independent Socialist League: “We not only support the Palestine Jews’ right to self-determination but draw the necessary conclusions from that position: for full recognition of the Jewish state by our own government; for lifting the embargo on arms to Israel; for defense of the Jewish state against the Arab invasion in the present circumstances.”
Now obviously, Draper did not share Stalin’s motives for supporting a Jewish state in Palestine. Rather, his position was rooted in binationalism — the same premise shared by Socialist Zionists of the Hashomer Hatzair — that Jews have an equal right to self-determination in Palestine, including a right to a *separate* state. Jewish and Palestinian workers were to unite for a “socialist” Israel. To put this into perspective, it is like saying that, as communities suffering oppression in Europe, the Boers in apartheid South Africa, or European immigrants in Americas, had the right to a separate — i.e., apartheid — state on stolen indigenous land.
Though common on the left, this premise didn’t go unchallenged. During the 1936-1939 Arab uprising in Palestine, the South African Trotskyists noted that some Marxists had “been swept off their feet by the widespread anti-Semitic wave [in Europe] and have fallen victims to nationalism,” and reminded readers that, “[a] clear, unambiguous stand in support of the colonial people in their struggle against imperialism is the first duty of revolutionary socialism.”
Palestinian Marxists asked how “socialist” were kibbutzes — or “Jewish states” — built on top of the ruins of Palestinian villages like Deir Yassin, site of the most infamous Zionist massacre of the Nakba?
As documented in Black Liberation and Palestine Solidarity, this same position was upheld in the 1960s by Malcolm X, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and others, who condemned not only particular Israeli policies, but Zionism itself. This was based on the understanding that Palestinian oppression — and resistance – was part of the same international system of racism and colonialism inflicted on black South Africans, Vietnamese, Latin Americans and African Americans. Indeed, in 1973, thousands of Arab and Black workers held a wildcat strike in Detroit to protest UAW support for Israel.
Who defended Israel against these protests? Labor/Left/Socialist Zionists and social democrats, including black moderate civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the Workmen’s Circle – the same “left” forces who jumped on the bandwagon for U.S. and Israeli wars in the wake of 9/11.
However, 9/11 and its immediate aftermath also sparked the first visible labor anti-Zionism since the 1973 UAW wildcats, including New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW) and Labor for Palestine, both co-led by black radical activists from the 1960s.
And since the most recent Israeli massacre Gaza massacre in 2014, we have seen a small, but growing number of labor bodies standing with Palestine, including the refusal of the dockers in ILWU Local 10 to handle Israeli Zim Line cargo, and the adoption of BDS resolutions by a small but growing number of labor bodies. This has paralleled growing intersectional solidarity from Black4Palestine, the Movement for Black Lives, Labor for Standing Rock, immigrant rights and other grassroots social justice movements in the United States.
That kind of solidarity with Palestinian resistance is the antidote to Socialist Zionism.