We repost Tony Cliff's 1982 article on Zionism and the foundations of the state of Israel, introduced by Alex Snowdon
The revolutionary activist and writer Tony Cliff wrote many articles, over a long period of time, on the subject of Palestine. This can partly be explained by personal biography. It is where he grew up, in a Jewish family during the 1920s and 30s, and it was (by his own account) his disgust at the unequal treament of Arab and Jewish children that first radicalised him.
His interest, though, was also sustained by recognition of historic Palestine's pivotal importance in the whole 20th century history of Western imperialism and the Middle East.
Implacable opposition to every manifestation of US imperialism was a cornerstone of Cliff's political outlook. In the aftermath of World War Two America unquestionably became the dominant global power, with the Soviet Union as its only geopolitical rival. Britain, meanwhile, went into decline.
Prior to World War Two, rival imperialisms - led by the British - carved up the Arab world for themselves. After the war it was America that took over the dominant role in this region, and ever since it has ruthlessly sought to preserve its military, polical and economic supremacy in an oil-rich and strategically vital area of the globe.
The founding of Israel in 1948 - dependent on the brutal expulsion of the Palestinian people - suited American imperialist interests perfectly.
For over 70 years, Israel has been a proxy aggressor for US imperialism in the Middle East, a watchdog in the Arab world. A small country reliant on vast US 'aid', it has been utterly reliable in prosecuting the wishes of the world's superpower. Cliff understood this and was an anti-Zionist in conditions much less favourable than today.
We are posting this article, first published in 1982, which commemorates the catastrophe of 1948. Tony Cliff unearths the roots of Israel's brutality towards the people whose land it stole in the Nakba.
Roots of Israel’s violence
Looking back on my own experience in Palestine I can see how today’s horror grew from small beginnings. Zionism, Jewish separateness and the belief in a Jewish homeland, have developed into state violence. My parents were pioneering Zionists, leaving Russia for Palestine in 1902 to join a total Zionist population of a few thousand.
I grew up a Zionist, but Zionism didn’t have the ugly face we see today. However, there was always a fundamental crack between the Zionists and the Arabs. This same crack split Zionists from ordinary people in their countries of origin.
If you look to 19th century Russia it’s clear. In 1891 Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. The next year Russia’s extreme right organised a pogrom against the Jews. “Kill a Jew and save Russia,” they said. Socialists reacted by calling for unity in fighting Tsarism and the right. But there was a second reaction-Zionism. The Zionists argued, “Jews can’t rely on anyone but ourselves,” and the first of them left Russia for Palestine. Each further pogrom produced the same two reactions. Some joined the general revolutionary movement - others chose separation.
When the Zionists came to Palestine they continued to emphasise their separateness. Zionists took over Arab land, often evicting the occupiers. And the Zionists systematically discriminated against the thousands of Arab unemployed. Although Arabs were at least 80 percent of the population, not one came to my school.
My parents were extreme Zionists, and my father told me, “The only way to look at an Arab is through the sight of a gun.” I never shared a house with an Arab.
The Zionists organised their own trade union, the Histadrut, which raised two political funds. One was called “the defence of Hebrew Labour”, the other “the defence of Hebrew products”. These funds were used to organise pickets to prevent Arabs working in Jewish enterprises and to stop Arab produce coming into Jewish markets. They did nothing to damage Zionist businesses.
In 1944 we lived near Tel Aviv market. One morning my wife saw a young man go around talking to all the women selling produce. Some he left alone, but others had paraffin poured on the vegetables and their eggs smashed. My wife, who had just come from South Africa, couldn’t believe it. “What's going on?” she asked.
It was simple. The man checked if the produce was Hebrew or Arab, and destroyed Arab produce. Now, this behaviour was still on a small scale and some Zionists were still talking like left wingers. Zionist publishers printed Lenin and Trotsky, for example.
But the antagonism to the Arabs remained central. No Arab ever entered the kibbutz movement, the so called “socialist” collective farms. The majority of Jewish-owned land belonged to the Jewish National Fund, whose constitution forbade Arab tenants. This meant in whole areas the original Arab populations were driven out.
When I left Palestine in 1946 Tel Aviv, a city of 300,000, had absolutely no Arab residents. Imagine arriving in Nottingham, a similar sized town to Tel Aviv, and finding no English people.
There was obviously enmity between the Zionists and the Arabs. The Zionists - a minority not trusting the majority - needed support and always looked to the imperialist powers that controlled Palestine for help. This was low key at first. Zionist leaders repeatedly told German rulers it would be in their interests if Zionism flourished in Palestine.
When Britain occupied Palestine in 1917, the Zionist leaders wrote to the Tory foreign minister Balfour explaining it was in Britain’s interests to have a strong Zionist presence in Palestine. And during the Second World War, as it became clear America was the main imperialist power, particularly in the Middle East, Zionist leaders switched their focus to Washington.
The Zionists, if not for sale, were always for hire. The logic of Zionism, separatism from the Gentile population, whether in Russia, Poland or Palestine, led to this dependence on imperialism. Nazism and its rise were important. German big business didn’t support Hitler from fear of the Jews, but from fear of the German working class. Both the Jews and German workers were Hitler’s victims.
The key for revolutionary socialists should have been organising working class struggle against the Nazis. The Zionist objected. “The Jews are Hitler’s victims,” they said, and by implication all Germans are enemies of the Jews.
When the German workers were defeated in 1933 without a mass struggle against Hitler, Zionism was immensely strengthened. Once a movement has a certain momentum it can’t be stopped unless there is a new movement on a much bigger scale. If the Jews couldn’t trust the Germans, it was natural for them to see a strong Zionist state as the only answer.
Back in Palestine Zionist outrages were developing. The state of Israel, declared in 1948, was accomplished by a terror campaign which drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. The state was born with the “limited” massacre of 240 civilians in the village of Deir Yassin.
Men, women and children were slaughtered, some thrown alive down the village well. It was a place I knew well, just a few miles from my home. The Arabs aren’t the only ones to pay since then. Israel’s constant search for allies has made it increasingly a supplier of military equipment to the world's most reactionary regimes.
Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defence minister, spent two months in South Vietnam in 1966 advising the American puppet government. Israel supplied arms to Chile, to Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, and to all the countries upon which US president Carter placed an arms embargo for human rights violations.
Israel’s security police advised the Shah of Iran, while its scientists developed nuclear weapons with South Africa. Some people argue oppression always leads to progress. The Jews were horribly oppressed but it didn’t guarantee they became progressive or revolutionary. Indeed, oppression associated with lack of power leads to reaction. When the core of Zionism meant separation from all progressive forces, from the revolutionary forces in Russia to the anti-imperialist forces in the Middle East, the rest of the tale followed naturally.
Now Israel is collaborating with the Phalangists in Lebanon, an openly fascist organisation. I’m not surprised. I remember the 1930s when Begin’s (now Israel’s prime minister) organisation, the Irgun, used the Hitler salute and wore the brown shirts.
In 1935 I would never have believed Zionists would murder civilians - they discriminated against the Arabs, that’s all. But in today’s harsh world any crack expands and the crack of Jewish separateness leads to the horrors we’ve seen in Lebanon. Those monstrosities are the logic of Zionism. Indeed, I fear we’ll see much worse from the Zionists in the future.
Workers have solution
The Arab working class is the only power in the Middle East which can stop Zionism and smash imperialism. The existing state can’t do it. The king of Saudi Arabia collaborates completely with America because of oil interests.
The Assad regime in Syria is corrupt and unstable, depending on Saudi Arabian subsidies, while the Egyptian regime rests on millions of impoverished workers and peasants. Millions of workers live in shanty towns and millions of peasants suffer terrible diseases because they lack even basic amenities of sanitation and fresh water.
These regimes can’t fight anything - let alone Zionism and imperialism. The Palestine Liberation Organisation depends on Saudi Arabian money and Syria for physical survival. All the bravery of the PLO guerillas can only lead to an impasse. Arab workers are the key. The Egyptian working class is at least the size of Russia’s working class in 1917. These workers have the power to change the Middle East.
Originally published in Socialist Worker, 3 July 1982
Before you go...
Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!
More articles from this author
- 'The fight never stops': GMB's arrested trade unionists remain defiant
- We need a wage revolution - Counterfire Freesheet June 2022
- A strategy for struggle: Trade unions and the rank and file - video
- 'One struggle, one fight': RMT and Aslef march with striking St George's Hospital cleaners
- Revolution! begins Saturday with 'NATO, Ukraine and the New World Disorder'
- Catching fire: posties next in line for national strike action
- The old is dying and new is struggling to be born: Join Revolution! this weekend