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Zionism, Imperialism, and Socialism

Tom Mayer is a retired professor from the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado in Boulder where he taught for forty years.  He is also a long-time activist in struggles for peace, social justice, and environmental sanity.

Moshé Machover, Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 327 pages, $24.00, paperback.

Moshé Machover is a mathematician and political activist who was born in Tel Aviv in 1936 and has lived in London since 1968. He is a co-founder of the radical left Israeli Socialist Organization (ISO), which is better known by the name of its journal Matzpen (compass). The book under review is a collection of thirty-five essays written by Machover, sometimes in collaboration with other members of ISO, and dealing with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The earliest essay in the collection appeared in 1966 while the most recent one was published in 2011. Perhaps the best known article is “The Class Nature of Israeli Society,” which appeared in New Left Review in 1971. Taken together, these essays provide an original and often compelling Marxist analysis of Zionism and its relationship to the Arab world. The ideas contained in this book, Machover says, are a collective product of the ISO. He is merely the carrier.

Five major themes appear repeatedly in these essays. A foundational concept is the notion that Zionism is a colonizing project, and that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is basically a struggle between colonizers and the indigenous population. A second theme is that Zionism, precisely because of its colonizing nature, is necessarily allied with and thoroughly dependent upon imperialism. Since 1967, if not earlier, the state of Israel has been allied with and dependent upon U.S. imperialism. A third major thesis is that Zionist colonization differs from that in Algeria or South Africa because it seeks not to exploit the indigenous population, but rather to exclude, expel, or otherwise eliminate these people. Such exclusionary colonization, Machover contends, is more difficult to overturn than exploitation-based colonization where colonizers are typically a small fraction of the total population.

A fourth overarching contention concerns the importance of conceptualizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a regional context. Due to the robust alliance between the Israeli state and imperialism, Zionism cannot be abolished through struggles confined to Mandatory Palestine (the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea). The only plausible way of eliminating Zionism—an objective that Machover believes all genuine socialists must embrace—is via a working class led socialist revolution unifying the entire Arab world, or at least the entire Arab east or Mashreq (the territory stretching from Egypt to Iraq).

The fifth major theme concerns the political form of a stable and just resolution to the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian Arabs, the indigenous population of Palestine, clearly constitute a national group. Contrary to the claims of Zionism, the world population of Jews does not comprise a nation. Machover argues, however, that Israeli Jews—whom he often refers to as Hebrews—are also a national group because they have territorial contiguity, a complete class structure, a common language, and a secular culture (222). Hence a stable, non-repressive, and even-handed resolution to the conflict must entail a regional socialist federation in which both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews have equal national rights. Other conceivable resolutions will either be unstable, unjust, or unachievable.

In the first essay, written in 2010, Machover emphatically states that he is not an Israeli peace activist. Moreover, no authentic socialist could be a peace activist within Israel. Peace activists fail to acknowledge the intensely asymmetric nature of the clash between Israelis and Palestinians. Under present circumstances, peace would require that Palestinians abandon their national liberation struggle and remain permanently dispossessed and subjugated. “Peace will be the outcome of liberation, not its starting point” (4).

Imperialism, argues Machover, dominates the Middle East partly by establishing arbitrary political divisions within the Arab world. “A divided Arab world suited the interests of the imperialist powers: a divided nation is easier to dominate and exploit. A divided Arab nation is also a vital interest of the Zionist project; and it is this common interest that lies at the basis of the close alliance between Zionism (and the Zionist state) and its successive imperialist sponsors and senior partners” (292).

This splintering of political sovereignty severely constrains economic development, weakens the collective power of the Arab people, allows reactionary elites to seize the reins of government, and gives imperialist countries almost unlimited access to Arab oil. The continuing threat to imperialist dominance of Middle East is revolutionary Arab nationalism, and this is where Israel enters the picture.

Israel functions as the imperialist watchdog of the Middle East. Machover describes it as the local enforcer or subcontractor for global imperialism. Its specific task is to guard against the emergence of revolutionary Arab nationalism, but it also provides many other useful services for U.S. imperialism. In exchange for these valuable contributions to imperial control of the Middle East, the United States generously subsidizes the Israeli economy enabling, among other things, the Zionist state to devote a huge share of GDP to military expenditures (sometimes as high as 24 percent). In appreciation of its faithful support for U.S. imperialism, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig once remarked that “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk” (282).

By far the most important contribution that Israel made to imperialism was its stunning defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day War of 1967. This defeat thoroughly discredited secular Arab nationalism and today, forty-five years later, it still remains impaired. Machover also mentions additional Israeli services to U.S. imperialism (281–83). Over the years Israel has provided numerous improvements for U.S. fighter jets and other weapons systems. In 1970 Israel saved the pro-U.S. Hashemite regime in Jordan by forcing a withdrawal of Syrian forces. Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor derailed the Iraqi nuclear program and enabled the United States to invade Iraq in 1991 and 2003 with relative impunity. During the Cold War, Israel gave the Pentagon invaluable information about the vulnerabilities of Soviet offensive and defensive weapons. Many of the drones used by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen are manufactured in Israel. This list is by no means exhaustive. At one point Machover writes that “today US imperialism is humanity’s worst enemy, and its global hegemony poses the greatest danger to humanity’s future” (213).

Three essays in this book outline a socialist resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians (chapters 8, 33, and 34). The ultimate objective is, of course, to create a socialist federation of the entire Middle East. Since any such denouement appears exceedingly unlikely in the foreseeable future, of greater immediate interest are the principles and strategies that socialists might use to resolve the conflict. One important principle is focusing on liberating people rather than liberating land (42). A focus on liberating people alters the zero-sum nature of the conflict and opens the possibility of mutually beneficial outcomes. A second socialist principle involves supporting the national liberation struggles of oppressed people while also upholding an internationalist position that rejects all nationalist ideologies (284). The principle of internationalism insulates socialists from bourgeois nationalist dogmas that foster cultural chauvinism and downplay class struggle. A third socialist principle involves giving equal rights to all legitimate nationalities. This principle is particularly important because Palestinian resistance movements have sometimes refused to acknowledge that Israeli Jews are a real nationality. For example, Machover takes exception to the call for a “democratic secular state” in Palestine because the word secular here is counterposed to bi-national rather than to theocratic. Hence the “democratic secular state” formula implies an Arab rather than a multinational state in Palestine, meaning that Israeli Jews (i.e., the Hebrew nationality) would be denied their national rights.

With regard to socialist strategy, Machover maintains that both the one-state and the two-state approaches are misguided. Both approaches attempt to extract the Palestinian struggle from its regional Arab context: “no just and lasting resolution of the conflict is possible within the confines of pre–1948 Palestine. First, the balance of power within pre–1948 Palestineis adverse to any just resolution of the conflict. Secondthe conflict is deeply imbedded in the regional context of the Arab East, and cannot possibly be resolvedin the absence of a profound transformation of the entire region” (288–89).

Given the present balance of power, a single-state solution would merely provide a framework for extended ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, while a two-state solution would devolve into a patchwork of “Indian reservations” substantially inferior to South African bantustans.

According to Machover, any resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that socialists could consider just must satisfy three conditions. First and foremost it must establish equal individual and national rights for all people. Second it must recognize the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland and be compensated for losses of property and livelihood. Finally, and most fundamentally, it must emphatically repudiate the Zionist claim that Jews all over the world constitute a single nation with a unique entitlement to the “Land of Israel” (278–79). This last point was critical in distinguishing the ISO from other Marxist groups within Israel: “The Matzpen group.gives primacy to the anti-Zionist struggle and subordinates all other issues, such as the economic struggle of the working class, to this struggle. It considers the overthrow of Zionism as the first task confronting revolutionaries in Israel” (97–98).

Machover’s prose is remarkable for its consistent clarity, absence of cant, and verbal precision. His writing is accessible to neophytes regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but will also enlighten anyone deeply engaged with the issue. I find the essential consistency of political positions articulated over forty-five tumultuous years of world history to be especially impressive. I concur with the great majority of the arguments presented in Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution, but disagree with the author on two important issues: national rights and anti-Zionist strategy.

The concept of national rights as used by Machover is both ambiguous and problematic. He certainly does not encourage national separation, but he also vigilantly opposes any form of national oppression. National rights, as understood by Machover, include linguistic-cultural autonomy, but they also embrace complete political self-determination and the right to form a separate state. The self-determination principle is needed to prevent national oppression and, on a tactical level, to wean the Israeli masses away from Zionism.

Yet an unqualified right of national self-determination is a principle laden with booby traps. It promotes the fragmentation of societies, weakening each piece, and rendering some less than viable. Separation induces inequality by enabling some national groups to commandeer the most valuable resources. Self-determination is difficult to implement if national groups are not geographically separated, and can motivate ethnic cleansing in the name of creating homogeneous nations. Within the context of ethnic cleansing, alien nationalities become dangerous fifth columns subject to military annihilation. Furthermore, inherent tensions exist between national self-determination and democracy. Demographic changes, for example, may require drastic revolutions in national identity if this is determined by majority rule. Surely issues of national oppression can be addressed without endorsing a general right of national self-determination. If socialists must reject all nationalist ideologies, as Machover claims, why should they promulgate virtually unlimited national self-determination?

With regard to anti-Zionist political strategy, Machover is correct to place the Palestinian issue in a regional context and to emphasize the importance of weakening imperialism. He seems to believe, however, that the only effective way of undoing the alliance between Zionism and imperialism is via a socialist revolution that unifies the entire Arab East. This would delay Palestinian liberation into the very distant future at best. But there is much reason to think that the Zionist-imperialist nexus can be significantly eroded even without socialist revolution and Arab unification.

Revolutions are occurring with increasing frequency in the Arab world. These are not socialist revolutions and they are not accomplishing Arab unification, but the current spate of revolutions is nevertheless of great historical importance. The so-called Arab Spring is a protracted nationalist democratic revolution. The Palestinian struggle has become a metaphor for the nationalist and democratic aspirations of Arab people everywhere. Therefore the more democratic the Arab states become, the more they will oppose both imperialism and Zionism; and the more economic development the Arab Spring fosters, the more powerful the opposition to imperialism and Zionism will be. While the collective power of such independent capitalist states is inevitably less than that of a unified Arab socialist state as foreseen by Machover, it is by no means inconsequential.

Several other processes could also undermine the alliance between Zionism and imperialism. U.S. imperialism is, for a variety of reasons, gradually weakening. Although its military capacity is still formidable, the leaders of U.S. imperialism already feel increasing pressure to husband resources prudently. They will need to reconsider the utility of the Zionist alliance for purposes of dominating the Middle East. A sober analysis will show that the “special relationship” with Israel sucks the United States into expensive and counter-productive wars that actually diminish its global hegemony. Continuation and deepening of the Arab Spring, assuming it happens, will alter the global balance of power and thereby change the calculations of imperialist elites. Under these circumstances, Israel’s traditional “watchdog” role may lose its value to imperialism. In recent decades Israeli aggressions have been brutal but less than fully triumphant. If this pattern continues, popular U.S. support for the alliance with Zionism will gradually fade. All these scenarios suggest that the struggle against Zionism can be successful even without a socialist revolution that unifies the Arab world.

Although the Machover-Matzpen analysis has certain limitations, it provides a creative and principled Marxist understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the conditions necessary for its resolution. Given the enormous pressures within Israel to celebrate Zionism, one has to admire the political courage and determination of Machover and his ISO comrades. Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution deserves a wide readership. It will acquaint the current anti-Zionist left with the ideas and experiences of a kindred earlier generation. It can make our understanding of this perilous conflict more realistic and our action more effective.