The year of 2017 is a year of landmark anniversaries. By definition, every year is, but the symbolism of round figures seems to justify an extended historical reflection. This should cover both the importance of key historical developments as well as alternative pathways that opened up at the same time, whether realized in full or not.
- It is 120 years since the inaugural congress of the Zionist movement, which set itself the target of establishing, “a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law,” through “the promotion by appropriate means of the settlement in Palestine of Jewish farmers, artisans, and manufacturers.” It identified the need for “preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, in order to reach the goals of Zionism.” It did not mention the indigenous population living there at the time, including local Jewish communities.
- It is 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, which set the contours of the current conflict by asserting,
His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
While the Declaration noted the existence of indigenous people, it referred to them in negative terms only (i.e., "non-Jewish"), entitled to civil and religious but not political rights.
- It is seventy years since United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine into two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab, against the wishes of the majority of the Arab population of the country.
- It is fifty years since the June 1967 war, which established Israeli domination over the entire territory of Mandatory Palestine, while keeping the local residents under military rule, without access to basic human and political rights to this day.
- It is thirty years since the First Intifada, which consolidated Palestinian resistance and the quest for an independent state in the 1967 occupied territories as a key goal of the national struggle.
These dates and the developments they unleashed had implications for different actors in the country, the region, and globally. In what follows I discuss some of these implications for settlement and resistance in Israel/Palestine, and point to alternative political perspectives, developed at the time and subsequently, which may continue to serve us today.
The ideological centrality of Zionism in Jewish identity, which is taken for granted today, is relatively new. In its first half century of existence it was a minority movement, having to challenge the socialist and religious currents dominant among Eastern European Jewry, as well as compete with mass immigration that sought to find personal solutions to the Jewish Problem. In four decades, from the 1880s to the 1920s, up to three million Jews left Eastern Europe for greener pastures, only a minor trickle of whom—two to three percent perhaps—moved to Palestine. Western Europe, North and South America, and South Africa were the main destinations for the vast majority of immigrants. They were far more interested in finding a safe environment in which to pursue normal lives than in “returning” to an ancient homeland in which they and their ancestors had never set foot, and to which they may have felt some divine sentiments but no sense of earthly belonging.
Many of those staying put in Eastern Europe joined socialist and labour movements, the most prominent of which was formed a month after the first Zionist Congress of 1897. That was the Bund (the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia). Its focus was on the intersection between ethnicity—Yiddish language, culture, and communal life—and class. It distinguished itself both from the Jewish Marxists who regarded the masses of Russian workers and peasants as the revolutionary subject, and had no interest in their own ethnic identity, and from Zionists who regarded political activity in the “diaspora” as a distraction from the task of realizing Jewish national aspirations in Palestine.
The Bund’s notion of Doikeit (Here-ness) served to ground Jewish social, cultural, and political concerns in specific geographical and historical realities, rather than in remote destinations promising illusory solutions to local problems. Jewish communities existed in many different places and they operated on the basis of concrete needs and concerns, which could not be displaced to other locations. They had to be addressed in the here and now, working together with other forces active on the local scene. In contrast to Zionism, which sought to transplant Jews and concentrate them in a place of their own, segregating them thus from the rest of the world, Bundism sought to integrate them in a joint struggle for social justice, while retaining their specific cultural identity.
Bundism did not remain a valid political perspective beyond the 1940s. Its mass human base was destroyed in the Holocaust, and new branches overseas did not last beyond the immigrant generation. The new environments required radical adaptation, usually leading either to terminal decline of the movement or to its members merging with local forces to ensure political viability, thereby forfeiting the movement’s distinct nature.
Despite this loss, the quest for cultural autonomy in the struggle for global justice remained the pillar of progressive secular Judaism. It continues to serve today as an alternative both to the tribal self-segregation of religious orthodoxy and to Zionist nationalism. At the same time, it allows Jewish activists who attach importance to their ethno-religious roots to operate as citizens in the national and global arenas but without abandoning their specific cultural identity. Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow in the USA, and similar movements elsewhere, exemplify this approach.
The centenary of the Balfour Declaration is the focus of attention this month but in the grand scheme of things it is eclipsed by another anniversary of global significance, the Russian Revolution which broke out only five days later on 7 November 1917, and led to the rise of the Soviet Union and the Communist International (Comintern).
While Balfour and his colleagues were carving up the Middle East to facilitate imperial rule, the new Soviet leadership took a direct oppositional stance, promising support for national liberation and anti-colonial movements. Zionism, in its view, delivered “the Arab working population of Palestine, where Jewish workers only form a minority, to exploitation by England, under the cloak of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.” At the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920, the Comintern argued that Britain deliberately set Arabs and Jews apart in Palestine. First, it drove “Arabs from the land in order to give the latter to Jewish settlers; then, trying to appease the discontent of the Arabs, it incited them against these same Jewish settlers, sowing discord, enmity and hatred between all the communities, weakening both in order that it may itself rule and command.”
The revolutionary answer to these divide-and-rule practices was the creation of a political force that would detach itself from colonial domination and unite Arabs and Jews in a struggle against imperialism. That force was the Palestinian Communist Party, formed in 1919, whose main goal was to overcome the social and political barriers created by Zionism and reinforced in the Balfour Declaration. It was the only party in the history of the country, to this day, that sought to transcend ethnicity and religion by opening its doors to members of all backgrounds.
Alongside the Communist Party—entirely Jewish in composition initially but undergoing a process of ‘”Arabization” over the years—small groups of Jewish intellectuals called for a bi-nationalist alternative to the mainstream Zionist quest to make Palestine an exclusive and exclusionary Jewish state. Beyond these dissident voices, and of far greater importance, a movement of Arab nationalist resistance came into being as a result of the Declaration. It used principles of national self-determination and majority rule to counter British and Zionist policies in Palestine. A Palestinian political identity might have developed anyway, but the targeting of the country for Jewish settlement and political build-up helped identify it as a distinct territorial entity within the broader Arab region.
By setting Palestine apart as the basis for the Jewish national home, the Balfour Declaration facilitated the rise of Palestinian-Arab nationalism, a movement that would compete with Zionism over the future of the country. The first manifestation of mass-based organization, the formation of the Muslim-Christian Associations, took place in 1918, shortly after the Declaration, to assert opposition to Zionist settlement and the terms of the Balfour Declaration. Initially aiming to unite forces with other Arab nationalists, Palestinian activists worked for an independent Syria under Faisal of the Hashemite family. But, once Damascus fell into French hands in 1920, the focus of attention returned to Palestine. The quest of the movement for national independence and an end to the Zionist immigration and settlement remained central to its efforts until the end of the British Mandate period.
Looking at the legacy of Balfour from today’s perspective means recognizing its central role in granting international legitimacy to the Zionist project at the expense of “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” It also means recognizing alternative perspectives that emerged simultaneously in response to the Declaration and in opposition to colonial plans: the left-wing commitment to fighting imperial rule and supporting anti-colonial campaigns, the liberal bi-nationalist alternative advanced by Jewish intellectuals, the Palestinian-Arab national movement. In other words, the anniversary is best seen not as a commemoration of a unilateral imposition of alien designs on the country and its residents, but as the opening up of a new arena of contestation, in which different visions for the future, still relevant today, were formulated, debated and served as guides for action.
The period that started with Balfour came to an end with the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine, adopted on 29 November 1947. The resolution set the stage for the creation of the State of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, which became known as the Nakba—two interrelated events at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Already a decade earlier, following the 1936 uprising, the Peel Commission report had recommended partitioning the country into an Arab and Jewish states. But the idea was rejected by most Arab nationalists as well as many Zionists, and was put to rest with the White Paper of 1939. However, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust, international support for it became widespread; even the Soviet Union abandoned its early anti-Zionist stance and moved to favor partition and the establishment of a Jewish state. This position was by no means universally accepted, however.
A long-forgotten proposal by minority members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), whose majority supported partition, recognized that Palestine was the common country of both indigenous Arabs and Jews, who deserved equal rights in a federal state. Only through preserving the unity of the country could co-operation and collaboration between the two peoples be ensured, the proposal argued. This would give “the most feasible recognition to the nationalistic aspirations of both Arabs and Jews,” and “merge them into a single loyalty and patriotism which would find expression in an independent Palestine.”
The proposal divided the tasks of government between the common federal state, where all citizens would enjoy the same citizenship rights, and the national states with powers over issues of education, land, housing and social services. The federal government would control defence, immigration, and foreign policies. All residents, Jews and Arabs alike, would share the same nationality. The boundaries would accord the Arab state 56 percent of the territory, and forty-four percent would go to the Jewish state (the reverse of the majority proposal, and more in tune with the demographic ratio of the overall population).
The minority proposal did not go far enough to accommodate the Jewish-Zionist quest for an independent state, and went too far in that direction to satisfy the Arab nationalist demand for majority rule in the entire country. In that sense it was seen by the majority as a recipe for ongoing conflict, but this time without the British to prevent uncontrolled bloody clashes. Partition was seen by the majority as a better way to meet some of the contradictory demands and thus offer a workable compromise.
In retrospect, it is clear that the partition resolution was a disaster. It led to an acceleration of armed conflict, first locally and then regionally, with parties aiming to claim possession of territory before the departure of the British in May 1948. The ethnic cleansing campaign that Israeli forces embarked upon was due to the need to secure maximum territory with minimum Arab population, in order to avoid living in a nominal “Jewish state” with a large number of non-Jewish residents (40 percent of the population would have been Arabs according to the majority proposal). A softer boundary between the states within a federal structure, as envisaged in the minority proposal, might have made that campaign pointless since there was no link between the number of people of each ethnic group in the state and its autonomous powers. The worst legacy of partition, the Nakba, could have been avoided.
Combining general citizenship with communal autonomy, within an agreed-upon division of powers in a federal state, did not seem a viable option at the time. With both Jews and Arabs striving to cement their control and determine their future powers, compromises of this nature were not appealing to the majority of the population. From today’s perspective though, this idea may become a model for fresh thinking beyond the currently-sterile one state/two states debate. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Conditions have changed in many important ways but the core challenge remains: how to accommodate people on an equal basis, in a bi-nationalist model that would supersede both ethno-nationalism and individualist liberalism, to allow people to embrace their particular identities but in a universal framework?
Twenty years after that fateful partition resolution and the ensuing war, the country was re-unified by the June 1967 war. The war established a single political authority over the entire territory of Mandatory Palestine, but with a twist: a regime that entrenches a division in its very midst, between civilian rule adhering to some democratic norms in the pre-1967 territories, and military rule with no democratic pretensions beyond them. This is not occupation in the international legal sense of the term, as it violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and the principles that no part of the territory should be annexed, that military rule should be temporary only, and that the occupying power has to act in good faith and in the best interests of the protected population under its rule.
Inside Israel, opposition to the June War and its consequences was very limited, but some voices shone through the thick state-sponsored cloud of paranoia mixed with triumphalism. The radical left-wing organisation Matzpen was one of the only two political forces that challenged the dominant perspective from its inception (the other was the Soviet-aligned Communist Party, Rakah). In a September 1967 Haaretz ad, a dozen signatories affiliated with Matzpen stated:
Occupation leads to foreign rule; foreign rule leads to resistance; resistance leads to oppression; oppression leads to terror and counter-terror. The victims of terror are mostly innocent people. Keeping the occupied territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims. Let us get out of the occupied territories immediately.
That statement was followed by another, even sharper one:
It is both the right and duty of every conquered and subjugated people to resist and to struggle for its freedom. The ways, means and methods necessary and appropriate for such struggle must be determined by the people itself and it would be hypocritical for strangers – especially if they belong to the oppressing nation – to preach to it, saying, Thus shalt thou do, and thus shalt thou not do….As for Israel, a socialist revolution is needed radically to change the character of this state, transforming it from a Zionist state – an instrument for furthering Zionist colonization, a natural ally of imperialism – into a socialist state representing the true interests of the Israeli masses, a state oriented toward the surrounding region and both willing and capable to integrate itself in it.
These words and its radical protest made Matzpen the most notorious political movement in post-1967 Israeli society, despite the small number of its activists. Only one Palestinian organization developed similar formulations at the same time—the Democratic Front for the liberation of Palestine (DFLP). It called for “a people's democratic Palestine state in which the Arabs and (Israeli) Jews will live without any discrimination whatsoever, a state which is against all forms of class and national subjugation, and which gives both Arabs and (Israeli) Jews the right to develop their national culture.” Due to links of history and destiny, “the people's democratic state of Palestine will be an integral part of an Arab federal state in this area. The Palestinian state will have a democratic content hostile to colonialism, imperialism, and Arab and Palestinian reaction”. The state will “encompass Arabs and (Israeli) Jews enjoying equal national rights and obligations—a state in the service of all the forces struggling for national liberation and progress in the world.”
The core difference between the positions of Matzpen and the DFLP was the question of self-determination for Israeli Jews. Matzpen was in favor, albeit in a de-Zionist framework guaranteeing equality to all citizens and redress for victims of the Nakba. The DFLP was against that, even though it recognized Israeli Jews as a national group, not merely a religious one as the rest of the PLO maintained at the time. The issue was never settled, and the relationship between nationalism, liberation, individual and collective democratic rights, remains central to debates about the future of Israel/Palestine. The 1967 occupation created a dual political framework that allowed such debates to be waged with regard both to the unified territory as a whole and to each component on its own (as well in relation to the Palestinian Diaspora). Fifty years later, we are still far from resolution of these debates.
One potential step toward such a resolution was taken thirty years ago, with the first intifada of December 1987. Erupting after two decades of Israeli military rule, the Intifada served to unify the West Bank and Gaza on a platform of national liberation from foreign rule, driven by local activists who inserted a sense of political dynamism and social grounding into the specific conditions of the post-1967 period. With the national leadership relocated to Tunisia in the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon War, local residents had to rely on their own efforts to confront Israeli domination. They came up with an innovative strategy of mass, popular community-based campaigns rooted in the direct concerns of residents rather than in abstract nationalist ideologies.
Instead of being guided by the external leadership, the internal resistance movement led the way, and carried the PLO behind it. The November 1988 Declaration of Independence by the Palestine National Council acknowledged that by stating:
This magnificent uprising has demonstrated the deep-rooted national unity of our people . . . both inside and outside the homeland. This has been shown by the rallying of the Palestinian masses in all their national institutions – including trade unions, vocational organizations, students, workers, farmers, women, businessmen, land owners, professionals and academics – to the intifadah, through the unified leadership of the uprising and through the popular committees which have been formed in all quarters of the cities and in the villages and camps.
The model of mass uprising provided by the Intifada did not last beyond the early 1990s, however. The return of the PLO and the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in line with the 1993 Oslo Accords shifted the balance of power in favour of the external state-oriented leadership and institutions. At the same time, the rise of the Hamas movement shifted strategy from popular mobilization towards armed struggle. Both moves undermined the mass democratic nature of political organization. In retrospect, neither the PA nor Hamas have managed to offer a viable alternative to confront effectively Israeli military and political domination. Perhaps now, three decades later, the best way forward would be to revive that original mass-based participatory course of action.
And this is the critical point about anniversaries. They serve to commemorate important events which set in motion crucial historical developments. But, they should not be treated only as historical setbacks that cannot be reversed. More usefully, we can look at them as having opened up new opportunities as well as presented new challenges. Let us use these commemorations in order to learn from the past, evaluate the needs of the present, and chart out appropriate strategies oriented towards the future.
 On the Bund and other Jewish socialist movements in Eastern Europe see Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism (Verso, 2016).
 Lenin, Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, 28 July 1920.
 Manifesto of the Congress to the Peoples of the East, 1 September 1920, https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/baku/manifesto.htm
 On the Palestinian Communist Party in that period see Musa Budeiri, The Palestine Communist Party, 1919-1948: Arab and Jew in the Struggle for Internationalism (Haymarket, 2010), and Ran Greenstein, Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine (Pluto, 2014), pp. 50-103.
 On early Palestinian-Arab nationalism see Yehoshua Porath, The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918-1929 (Frank Cass, 1974), Muhammad Muslih, The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism (Columbia University Press, 1988), and Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 145-75.
 United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, Report to the General Assembly (New York, 1947), https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/07175DE9FA2DE563852568D3006E10F3
 The Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, “A Democratic Solution to the Palestine Question”, 1969, pp. 173-74 in Basic Political Documents of the Armed Palestinian Resistance Movement, edited by Leila S. Kadi (PLO Research Center, 1969).
 Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising against Israeli Occupation, edited by Zachary Lockman and Joel Beinin (South End Press, 1989).
 Political Communiqué of the Palestine National Council and Declaration of Independence of 15 November 1988, https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/6EB54A389E2DA6C6852560DE0070E392