A military checkpoint along the route of the West Bank Barrier, near Abu Dis. Photo: Wikipedia A military checkpoint along the route of the West Bank Barrier, near Abu Dis. Photo: Wikipedia

John Rees explains why a secular, democratic state across historic Palestine has nothing in common with anti-semitism

In one of the key interventions in the debate about anti-Semitism recently Lord Levy argued that while it might be acceptable to argue about this or that policy of the Israeli state it is, by definition, anti-semitic to call for the overthrow of that state.

If this argument were accepted it would of course de-legitimise any argument that the foundation of the state of Israel was an act of violence which forced the indigenous Arab population from their land and that the history of that state remains inextricably linked with the continued and illegal expropriation of Palestinian land.

Lord Levy’s argument depends on the assertion that the call to overthrow the Israeli state is something which is only made about Israel and about no other state and so it must be an anti-semitic stance.

A moments thought should make us realise that this argument, in so far as it is targeted at the left, is profoundly wrong.

Nearly everyone on the left, no matter how broadly defined, called for the overthrow of the Apartheid state in South Africa. Jews played a prominent and heroic role in the fight against Apartheid. Ronnie Kasriels, to give only one prominent example, was the head of the armed wing of the African National Congress.

More recently many of us, and very many supporters of the Palestinians, fought in the Egyptian revolution. Our immediate aim was the total destruction of the existing, as it happens Arab, state and its replacement with a democratic state in which oppression of minorities, most notably but not only Coptic Christians, was abolished. Some of us, Jeremy Corbyn among us, also took part in the Tunisian revolution with exactly the same aim in mind, the root and branch destruction of the, as it happens, Arab dictatorship of Ben Ali.

Of course in some cases, the South African in particular, we were accused of wanting to eradicate the whites, or the rich, or some other group. But every genuine revolution aims at the overthrow of institutions of power not the physical elimination individuals or social groups. White power in South Africa had to be overthrown, and not, as it has obviously turned out, white people eliminated. The dominance of the power of the rich has to be overthrown, and then, no doubt individual rich people will make their way in the society as the rest of us do. As it turned out in these cases it was the counter-revolutionaries that were most determined to kill, torture, imprison and oppress others whilst the revolutionaries were reluctant even to use violence to defend themselves~wisely since in most cases they were literally outgunned.

What the revolutionaries wanted was a democratic, free, non-oppressive and non-exploitative society. The Palestinian revolution is no different. It does not want to ‘drive the Jews into the sea’. In the founding statutes of the Palestine Liberation Organisation demanded a democratic, secular state in which Jews and Arabs could live in peace in the historic land of Palestine, as they did before the forcible exclusion of the Arab population that was the necessary precondition of the establishment of a religiously exclusivist state in 1948. The exclusivity of that state is nowhere more obvious than in the fundamental ‘law of return’ in which a Jew from any part of the globe, no matter if they have never had the remotest contact with the Middle East in their lives, can migrate to Israel and become a citizen, but no Palestinian refugee forced from their home can exercise a legal right to return.

That state, its extensions and colonial conquests, its racist laws, checkpoints, walls and settlements will have to be completely overthrown before that vision of a homeland for both Palestinians and Jews can be realised.

The often toted alternative, a two state solution now sadly and disastrously accepted by the PLO leaders, is actually a retreat in the face of the argument that Arabs and Jews must have racially exclusive states because they cannot live together. That is wrong, and so unworkable. It would, indeed it has, perpetuated war in the region, and will not abolish it.

And, in any case, it ill-behoves the supporters of regime change everywhere from Afghanistan, through Iraq and Syria, to Libya to lecture the left for talking about the overthrow and transformation of entire systems of government. They are the world’s masters at this game, however disastrous their practice has turned out.

The only difference between the left and the right on this issue is that the right wants to overthrow states the better to advance the corporate and military agenda of the world’s global elite, the left wants change from below, democratically accomplished, and in the interests of the world’s working poor be they Jew or Arab, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh or of any other religion, ethnicity or race. That is an old and enduring principle on the left, and one we should hurl defiantly in the face of our detractors. It is, after all, May Day. 

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.