Tony Cliff was a Palestinian Jew and leading revolutionary socialist in Britain. On Holocaust Memorial Day, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, we republish an article that he wrote in 1998.
The Birth of Zionism
The French Revolution liberated Jewry. Between 1789 and the unification of Germany and Italy nearly a century later, the physical, economic and intellectual ghetto disappeared. Mendelssohn, Heine and Marx, all Jews, were prominent personalities in German culture. Widespread antisemitism, and even pogroms, did take place, but this happened in Tsarist Russia, where the yoke of feudalism still bore down and where modern capitalism had barely a foothold. When capitalism became old and decrepit, especially after the Great Depression of the 1930s, it turned on all the democratic achievements of its youth. Now the Jews were not simply pushed into the ghetto, but beyond – into the gas chambers.
In between these two periods a terrible case of antisemitism broke out in France. In 1895 a Jewish army officer, Dreyfus, was accused of being a German spy. A witch hunt trial led to mob hysteria against Jews. This wave of antisemitism was the by-product of the battle between rising French imperialism and German imperialism. In Paris at the time was a well established Viennese journalist, Theodor Herzl. Herzl drew the conclusion from the furore that antisemitism was natural and inevitable. He wrote in June 1895:
In Paris, as I have said, I achieved a freer attitude toward antisemitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” antisemitism.
Herzl criticised Emile Zola and other French people, mainly socialists, who came to the defence of Dreyfus. He complained that the Jews “seek protection from the socialists and the destroyers of the present civil order ... Truly they are not Jews any more. To be sure, they are no Frenchmen either. They will probably become the leaders of European anarchism.”
He argued that the answer to antisemitism lay in the Jews leaving the countries where they were not wanted and establishing their own state. In this effort, he declared, “the antisemites will be our most dependable friends ... our allies.” Hence he went to meet the Tsarist minister of the interior, Plevhe, the man who had organised the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. He dangled the bait before him that taking the Jews out of Russia would weaken the revolutionary movement, Plevhe’s enemy.
If antagonism between Jews and gentiles was supposedly natural and inevitable then of course it followed that antagonism between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was natural and inevitable. To start with, Herzl defined Zionism as “giving to a people without a country a country without people”. When his attention was drawn to the fact that there were Arabs in Palestine, Herzl took it for granted that the job was simply to get rid of them. On 12 June 1895 he wrote, “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.” What an outrageous expression of ethnic cleansing intent!
Closed Zionist economy
The Zionists who emigrated to Palestine from the end of the 19th century did not want to establish an economy similar to that of the whites in South Africa. There the whites were the capitalists while the blacks were the workers. The Zionists wanted the whole population to be Jewish. With the very low standard of living of the Arabs compared to Europeans, and with both very widespread open and hidden unemployment, the only way of achieving this aim was by closing the Jewish labour market to Arabs. There were a number of methods used to achieve this. First, the Jewish National Fund, owner of a big proportion of the land owned by Jews, including, for instance, a large chunk of Tel Aviv, had a statute that insisted that only Jews could be employed on this land.
In addition, the Zionist trade union federation, the Histadrut (General Federation of Hebrew Labour), imposed on all its members two levies: one for the defence of Hebrew labour, and one for the defence of the Hebrew product. The Histadrut organised pickets against orchard owners who employed Arab workers, forcing the owners to sack them. It was also common to see young men walking in the Jewish market among the women selling vegetables or eggs, and if they found one who happened to be an Arab, they poured paraffin on the vegetables and smashed the eggs.
I remember in 1945 a cafe in Tel Aviv was attacked and almost entirely broken up because of a rumour that there was an Arab working in the kitchen washing the dishes. I also remember, when I was in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem between 1936 and 1939, repeated demonstrations against the vice-chancellor of the university, Dr Magnus. He was a rich American Jew and a liberal, and his crime was that he was a tenant of an Arab landlord.
Dependence on imperialism
Knowing that they would face resistance from the Palestinians, the Zionists were always clear that they needed the help of the imperialist power that had the major influence in Palestine at the time.
On 19 October 1898 Herzl went to Constantinople to have an audience with Kaiser Wilhelm. At that time Palestine was in the Ottoman Empire which was a junior partner of Germany. Herzl told the Kaiser that a Zionist settlement in Israel would increase German influence as the centre of Zionism was in Austria, which was a partner of the German Empire. He also dangled another carrot: “I explained that we were taking the Jews away from the revolutionary parties.”
Towards the end of the First World War, when it was clear Britain was going to take over Palestine, the leader of the Zionists at the time, Chaim Weitzmann, contacted the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, getting from him, on 2 November 1917, a declaration promising the Jews a homeland in Palestine. Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, explained that the Zionist “enterprise was one that blessed him that gave as well as him that took, by forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.” The Zionists would be the Orangemen of Palestine.
With the Second World War it became clear that the main power in the Middle East would cease to be Britain and would be the United States. Ben Gurion, the Zionist leader at the time, therefore rushed to Washington to cement deals with the United States. Israel is now the most reliable satellite of the United States. It is not for nothing that Israel gets more economic aid from the United States than any other country, even though it is so tiny. It also gets more military aid than any other country in the world.
Understanding the barbarity of Nazism, Trotsky foresaw the annihilation of the Jews. On 22 December 1938 he wrote:
It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews ... Only audacious mobilisation of the workers against reaction, creation of workers’ militia, direct physical resistance to the fascist gangs, increasing self-confidence, activity and audacity on the part of all the oppressed can provoke a change in the relations of forces, stop the world wave of fascism, and open a new chapter in the history of mankind.
Until the Second World War the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world, especially working class Jews, were not supporters of Zionism. Thus in Poland, where the biggest community of Jews in Europe existed at the time, council elections took place in December 1938 and January 1939 in Warsaw, Lodz, Cracow, Lvov, Vilna and other cities. The Bund, the Jewish socialist workers’ anti-Zionist organisation, received 70 percent of the votes in the Jewish districts. The Bund won 17 out of 20 seats in Warsaw, while the Zionists held only one.
All this was changed radically by the Holocaust. There is hardly a Jew in Europe who did not lose members of his or her family in it. I remember a short time before it an aunt of mine from Danzig came to visit us in Palestine. I did not meet the rest of her family, but she, together with all the rest, disappeared in the Holocaust. A cousin of mine, whom I knew very well, moved to Europe with her husband and child of five just before the war and they were also murdered in the gas chambers.
Today the overwhelming majority of Jews are Zionists, and this is very understandable.
This is the term used by the Palestinians to refer to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Since then, in the three wars between Israel and the Arabs in 1948, 1967 and 1973, there has been a massive ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Today there are 3.4 million Palestinian refugees, far more than the number of Palestinians remaining in the areas they lived in before. Figures of land ownership testify to their elimination: in 1917 the Jews owned 2.5 percent of the land in the country. In 1948 it rose to 5.7 percent, and today it is about 95 percent in the pre-1967 borders, while the Arabs own only 5 percent.
It is one of the most tragic cases in history that an oppressed nation like the Jews, who suffered from the barbarity of the Nazis, have imposed oppression and barbarism on another nation – the Palestinians, a nation which was in no way involved in bringing about the Holocaust.
The Palestinians have not the strength to liberate themselves. They do not even have the strength to achieve any serious reforms. They are not like blacks in South Africa, who have achieved very important reforms. They got rid of apartheid, they won the right to vote and they elected a black president. It is true that economic apartheid is still in place. Wealth is still concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of white people, now alongside a tiny number of rich blacks. The overwhelming majority of blacks are still in abject poverty. The blacks in South Africa are incomparably stronger than the Palestinians. First of all, there are five to six times more blacks than whites in South Africa, while the number of Palestinians is more or less the same as the number of Israelis (the majority of Palestinians are refugees). Secondly, black workers are at the heart of the South African economy while the Palestinians are very marginal to the economy. The South African trade union Cosatu is a massive trade union which played a crucial role in the smashing of apartheid. The Palestinians have no comparable trade union organisation.
If there is a situation where Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution applies perfectly, it is that of the Palestinians. His theory argues that no democratic demands, no national liberation can be achieved without the proletarian revolution. The key to the fate of the Palestinians and everyone else in the Middle East is in the hands of the Arab working class whose main centres of power are in Egypt, and less so in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries. Tragically the potential of the Arab working class has not become actuality because of the damaging effect of Stalinism which dominated the left in the Middle East for a long time. It was the Stalinists who opened the door to the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussain in Iraq, who brought Assad and the Syrian Ba’ath to power, who opened the door to Nasser and the subsequent Islamists in Egypt.
A revolution of the Arab working class would put an end to imperialism and Zionism. It is simple hypocrisy to claim that this will menace the Jews of the area. When the apartheid regime dominated South Africa the supporters of the regime claimed that the ANC stood for the butchery of the whites. Nothing of the sort has taken place.
Born in Palestine to Zionist parents in 1917, Ygael Gluckstein became a Trotskyist during the 1930s and played a leading role in the attempt to forge a movement uniting Arab and Jewish workers. At the end of of the Second World war he moved to Britain and adopted the pseudonym Tony Cliff, later founding the International Socialists, and the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff’s works are available on the Marxist Internet Archive. For more on Cliff’slife see his autobiography ‘A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary’ and Ian Birchall’s 'Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time'