Ran Greenstein, Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine. London: Pluto Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ran Greenstein (RG): History is frequently written from a skewed perspective, as we tend to look at developments in retrospect, knowing already what their outcomes were. A better approach would be to look at events and responses as they unfolded in time, from the point of view of actors located within their own context, rather than from the vantage point of the present.
None of the political actors discussed in this book managed to achieve their primary goals, but all of them made valuable contributions—by way of analysis and practice—which may serve us today in charting a new course of action.
The main aim of the book is to close some of the gaps in the study of the Zionist movement and opposition to it. For over a century, alternatives to Zionism have been formulated and served as a basis for political organization. I examine some of these historical alternatives in the book, with a focus on movements that posed a fundamental challenge to Zionism’s ideological foundations as well those that confronted its practices on the ground.
The importance of their stories is that in their different ways, they provide essential starting points for a critique—both theoretical and practical—of the present. Why study these specific oppositional movements? The choice was made with a view to identifying radical responses to the rise of the Zionist settlement project, which remains the crucial actor shaping the history of Israel/Palestine for the last century. The examples set by these radical currents, especially those that combined theory and practice, serve as a form of “subjugated knowledges” that have undergone a degree of “insurrection” in the last two decades. This book aims to assist this process further.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RG: The book discusses four political/intellectual responses to mainstream Zionism: the bi-nationalist movement during the British Mandate period; the Palestinian Communist Party during the same period; the Palestinian national movement, which had its origins in that period and continues all the way to the present; and the radical Left movement Matzpen, which operated in Israel from the 1960s to the 1980s and formulated many of the key analytical critiques of Zionism and Israeli state practices that are still used today by radical intellectuals and activists.
Critical questions about the structures of domination of Israeli state and society, the relations between Zionism and colonialism, tensions between nationalist and Left-wing approaches, and the role of Israeli policies in entrenching imperial control in the Middle East have been raised by these movements. The book offers a concise but thorough review of the ideas and historical records of the movements in question, written from a sympathetic perspective that identifies the “best case” that can be made for each of them. I do not always agree with the positions developed by these movements, but strive to present them in a way that would make sense to readers remote in space and time.
I also aim to offer an analysis that places these movements in their historical and theoretical contexts, while examining their relevance for their times and ours. The answers they offered are not always suitable for us today (and some answers may not have been suitable for them either), but the questions they raised are still as relevant as ever. Above all, the goal is to enable readers to look at contemporary political and cultural issues with the benefit of historical depth.
The discussion in the book focuses more on the history of ideas than on organizational issues and social mobilization. It relies mostly on movements’ own publications, internal debates, and public exchanges, rather than on secondary literature, though some existing studies that offer solid historical descriptions and penetrating analysis served as essential sources: for example, Musa Budeiri`s study of the Palestine Communist Party, Rashid Khalidi`s work on Palestinian nationalism, and Yezid Sayigh`s book on armed struggle and the Palestinian movement.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
RG: The book brings together a number of studies I conducted on radical movements in Israeli-Palestinian history, expands the focus to other such movements, and adds new material and analysis. It draws on my previous work, which examined South Africa and Israel/Palestine from a comparative historical perspective. Although my focus here is not essentially comparative, I do examine some of the empirical material in light of equivalent developments in the context of South African history. This is particularly the case in the chapters on the Palestinian national movement and the anti-colonial struggle, and on the radical Left and Matzpen.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RG: I hope the book will be of interest to scholars who wish to enhance their understanding of aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that received less attention in the literature but were nonetheless crucial in shaping its course. It may also appeal to activists who seek to learn the lessons of the past in order to shape their struggles in the present and achieve greater success in the future.
The desired impact would be renewed interest in historical challenges to the rise of Zionism to a dominant position in Israel/Palestine and the Jewish world. There was nothing inevitable about the nationalist transformation of large sections of the world Jewish population, and the re-focusing of their collective identity around the State of Israel. If we understand how this happened, and what alternatives were available (even if they failed), we may be able to offer better analysis grounded in empirical evidence (“interpret the world”), and chart a course of cultural and political action that would enhance human rights and justice (“change it”).
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RG: I am using some of the historical material discussed in the book to extend the analysis to South Africa, in a comparative historical vein. So far I have been working on three angles: comparing bi-nationalism in Israel/Palestine with white Liberal perspectives in South Africa; comparing the Palestinian Communist Party with the Communist Party of South Africa; and comparing the Palestinian-Arab national movement to the equivalent African national movement (the African National Congress [ANC] and other currents). In all these, my focus is on the first half of the twentieth century, with occasional forays into later periods.
J: Do you think that your historical focus on challenges to Zionist thought has the potential to change contemporary understandings of Zionism and anti-Zionism?
RG: Adopting a historical perspective forces us to realize that what we experience today (policies, identities, social forces, political actors, cultural conflicts) have come into being in a long process, involving social and political struggles over resources and meanings. To understand the present we need to study its roots in the past.
By revisiting the ways in which challenges to Zionist ideology and settlement practices were formulated, contested, and eventually beaten, we enhance our ability to identify the strengths of the Zionist project, historically, but also its vulnerable points. Both are essential for an analysis of how it became successful and what challenges continue to face it today. This should allow us to reflect on the current scene and evaluate the prospects of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a quest for justice, equal rights, and redress.
There is no simple political formula that can be derived from the book. Its goal is more intellectual in nature, focused on learning about various attempts to shape Israeli-Palestinian history. But if it contributes to a renewed reflection about historical opportunities, current challenges, and future prospects for change, it will have achieved its goal.
J: Does the focus on opposition to Zionism mean there is no space for radical dissent from within? Is Liberal Zionism no longer viable?
RG: It is interesting to note that what used to pass for Liberal Zionism—the bi-nationalist movements discussed in the book—would be regarded as resolutely anti-Zionist in Israel today. Full equality of rights, communal autonomy and power sharing, restrictions on Jewish immigration and land settlement to avoid destabilization of indigenous society, and a Jewish cultural/spiritual center instead of a Jewish State? These notions evoke the Vision Documents formulated by Palestinian citizens in the last decade, not any agenda that can be defined as Zionist today.
Zionism indeed had a diversity of meanings in the past, and it included progressive voices— but, as Jewish policy analyst Antony Lerman put it in a New York Times article in the aftermath of the 2014 war in Gaza, “The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary, a Jewish ethno-nationalism inspired by religious messianism. It is carrying out an open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe.”
It is possible to envisage liberal, humanist, progressive Jewish perspectives re-emerging in Israel, to confront the present-day realities of occupation and apartheid-like control (Jewish Voice for Peace in the US is a good example), but it is increasingly unlikely that such voices would locate themselves within the Zionist framework. A new language of dissent is needed, based on notions of equality, justice, and rights.
Excerpt from Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine
From “Chapter Five: Conclusions”
Three conclusions emerge almost immediately from the historical material in the previous chapters:
* Nationalism has proved more powerful than class in appealing to the masses; class discourse can be effective within national boundaries, not across them
* The appeal of the humanist liberal discourse, advocating universal values and equality between groups, is limited by the extent to which it is reciprocated, and
* Under intense conflict, a range of issues beyond financial and military resources shape the prospects of different parties: internal unity, effective mobilization of people, strategic coherence, tactical flexibility, and ability to manipulate self images and external impressions.
In order to understand the operation of these factors, I will discuss each one of them in turn, with reference to Jewish settlers, Indigenous Palestinians, and the international context.
Nationalism and Class
Class analysis and organization were central to many of the political forces discussed in the book: the Left-wing of the Poalei Zion movement, the Palestinian Communist Party (on all its factions and reincarnations), the Palestinian armed Left (Popular Front, Democratic Front), and Matzpen. None of them used class effectively to overcome the attraction of nationalist ideology, so as to link people up across national boundaries. Some did not even try, either because such an effort was marginal to their constituency`s concerns (the Zionist Left) or because it clashed with the nationalist agenda they pursued (the Popular Front). But particularly for the radical Left which sought an alternative to nationalism, overcoming national divisions was crucial.
The Palestinian Communist Party before 1948 presented the longest and most sustained attempt to bridge over national divisions. Its quest to form a territorial party was the first—and only—such effort during the Mandate period. It was the most serious effort in the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it failed. In the 1920s it experienced great difficulties due to the Jewish-settler origins of the founding members of the Party. They were genuine and eager, but encountered local conditions that were not conducive for their aim to recruit Arab members and leaders: they did not speak the language, were foreign to the culture, arrived there as part of the project against which they positioned themselves politically, and thus appeared as representing the very forces they were targeting for condemnation and opposition.
Intervention from the outside forced them to expedite the transformation process, but its arbitrary and rushed nature resulted in another problem: the imposition of an inexperienced leadership on a reluctant membership, suspicious of the process as tainted by prejudice against veteran Jews and preferential treatment for Arab newcomers. With the intensification of conflict in the country in the late 1930s, this internal clash led to implosion, with Jews and Arabs forming different factions, eventually destroying unity and establishing separate parties on a national basis. Paradoxically, all factions opposed partition of the country into national units but practiced it in their own structures. If the only force ideologically committed to joint political organization could not maintain unity in the face of national divisions, what chance was there for the country as a whole?
And yet, while it is easy to mock the failure to maintain unity among activists working for the same cause, we must not lose sight of their gains. They created a functioning organization that remained unified for twenty years under tough conditions of isolation from their own constituency and repression by British and Zionist security forces. They were the only ones who achieved a degree of solidarity across boundaries though in an uneven manner. In the 1940s activists of the PKP and NLL played an important role in labor struggles in their own communities and occasionally on a joint basis. The NLL in particular managed to become a central force among Arab workers, taking advantage of the absence of a strong nationalist labor movement among them equivalent to the Histadrut in the Jewish sector. It was precisely the NLL`s abandoning the quest for an Arab-Jewish organization, and joining the Palestinian national movement, that allowed it to recruit worker activists into its ranks and occupy a leading position in Arab unions. Equally, it was the turn towards the Zionist mainstream that allowed the PKP to gain some Jewish workers` support in the 1940s but not before.
In other words, the success of class-based campaigns was conditional on them staying confined to one national group. There was a trade-off between the class and national agendas. Progress on one front usually meant a set-back on the other. This was the case because class realities were framed within a nationalist paradigm, as the campaign for Conquest of Labor showed most clearly. It started as an effort to deny employment to Arab workers in order to provide jobs for existing and potential Jewish immigrants, and ended up being used as a major instrument for consolidating the exclusionary nature of the Zionist settlement project as well as consolidating the dominance of the Labor movement within the Jewish community. Protest action by the PKP was seen as a national treason rather than assertion of class solidarity: Arab workers were defined as competitors, not as fellow proletarians in search of jobs. Their logical course of action was to organize on a similar basis and use nationalism to enhance their own position in the labor market. This usually meant that gains made by the Left in recruiting members and influencing activists did not translate into support for a different political agenda that transcended nationalism.
Matzpen did not experience the same difficulty of reconciling its radical class and dissident national agendas, but that was because it was a tiny organization that never managed to develop mass support. The combination of class analysis and critique of nationalism remained on paper, but even as a theoretical synthesis it led to fierce debates about the balance between the two. In retrospect, most of these internal conflicts and splits seem misguided, resulting from delusions of political grandeur and a permanent sense of impending revolutionary transformation, rather than from sober evaluation of realistic political prospects.
One issue of theoretical interest, involving the intersection of class and national conflict, has remained unresolved since the 1930s. When Tony Cliff (L. Rock) debated the South African radical Left group The Spark, he argued that Jewish workers were not inherently reactionary because their existence did not depend on the exploitation or oppression of the Arab masses. The response from his South African colleagues was that Jewish workers were part of a colonial project carried out at the expense of the native Arab population. Hence, they were not potential allies of the revolutionary struggle, which was the preserve of colonized Arab workers. They could join it as individuals by renouncing Zionism, but had no role as a class-based group.
Both sides were right: unlike white workers in South Africa, Jewish workers in Palestine did not exploit Arab workers directly indeed (as Cliff claimed), but they did benefit from land and other material resources confiscated from Arabs in 1948, and ever since.
Matzpen inherited the two parts of the argument. It recognized the material basis—including political privileges of full citizenship which were not valid at the time of the original debate—which tied even the most oppressed and exploited Jewish masses to the exclusionary practices of the state. But it also recognized that the state treated its own citizens in a differentiated manner and therefore that exploited groups within it were potential dissidents: Palestinian citizens obviously, but also the Jewish working class, consisting largely of Mizrahi immigrants, whose incipient rebellion in the shape of the labor struggles of the late 1960s and the Black Panthers movement of the early 1970s aroused great expectations. But these expectations were never fulfilled, and the Mizrahi proletariat adopted state-sponsored exclusionary nationalism in an enthusiastic manner. To understand why, we need to consider the fate of the bi-nationalist movement.
What Is to Be Done?
In Israel/Palestine today there are two ethno-national groups. Israeli Jews are unified by their legal status as full citizens. Palestinian Arabs are divided by their legal status into citizens in pre-1967 Israel, resident non-citizens in the Occupied Territories, and non-resident non-citizens in the Diaspora. The two groups are distinct by virtue of their language, political identity, religion and ethnic origins. Only about ten percent of them—Palestinian citizens—are fully bilingual. Many Jews have Arab cultural origins, but their legacy has been erased through three generations of political and cultural assimilation. The delusion that these “Arab Jews” share any political consciousness with Palestinian—even if in a dormant form—has been laid to rest. On the face of it, this would seem an ideal argument for a separatist two-state solution, but things are more complicated than that.
A solution along South African “rainbow nation” lines, based on the multiplicity of identities and the absence of a single axis of division to align them all, is unlikely to be replicated in Israel/Palestine. Elements such as the use of English as the dominant medium of political communication, shared by all groups, or Christianity as a religious umbrella for the majority of people from all racial groups, do not exist. At the same time, in pre-1967 Israel people of all backgrounds—veteran Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, new Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, and Palestinian citizens—use Hebrew in their daily interaction and largely share similar social and cultural tastes. In mixed towns, such as Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, there are neighborhoods in which Jews and Arabs live together with little to distinguish between their life styles except for their home language and religious practices. Without idealizing the situation, it can become a foundation for a new version of bi-nationalism.
Bi-nationalism today is based on the recognition that two groups live together in the same country, separately within homogeneous villages and towns in some areas, but also mixed to varying degrees in other areas. Historical patterns of demographic engineering that resulted in forced population movement and dispersal—most notably the 1948 Nakba and the post-1967 settlement project—have created a patchwork quilt of mono-ethnic and bi-ethnic regions, separated by political intent rather than by natural or geographical logic.
[Excerpted from Ran Greenstein, Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine, by permission of the author. © Ran Greenstein 2014. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]