Zionism and racism: speech by Wesam Khaled

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, 1950

Below we publish the speech delivered by comrade Wesam Khaled of the Revolutionary Communist Group at a public meeting held in London on 21 September 2018. The title of the meeting was 'Corbyn, Labour and Anti-Semitism: Why is solidarity with Palestine under attack?'

We are here because of the recent attempts to silence critics of Israel by conflating their criticisms with anti-Semitism. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, the vehicle by which this conflation is being made, includes a number of examples which are clearly aimed at delegitimising legitimate criticisms of the Israeli state.  One particularly problematic example claims that it is anti-Semitic to say that ‘the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’.  In light of this, the first part of my talk will challenge this example directly, looking at the history of the establishment of the state of Israel and explaining why we stand by the statement that Israel is a racist state.  In the course of that discussion, I will touch on the role that British imperialism has played in supporting the establishment of Israel.  Lastly, given recent events I will briefly discuss the history of the Labour Party’s support for Zionism.

Israel’s racist roots

When people accuse us of being anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, our response is that of course we are neither of those things, we are instead anti-Zionist.  But what is Zionism?

The Zionist ideology developed in late 19th century Europe against a backdrop of centuries of varying levels of persecution of Jewish minorities.  It was a middle class movement which sought to build a ‘Jewish nation’.  While a number of different locations for this Jewish nation were debated (various proposals, including Uganda and Argentina, were made at various times) eventually it was basically agreed that it would be located in Palestine.

Of course, proposing a Jewish nation in Palestine doesn’t appear to give a whole lot of regard to the indigenous Palestinians who were already living there.  But not much regard has ever been given to any of the people living under the yoke of imperialism, and settler-colonial states had already been established in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.  (Of course, these had all been established through genocide and ethnic cleansing of their own).  This issue would of course crop up later when it came to the actual establishment of the Israeli state.

Throughout the early decades, the Zionist movement remained quite marginal.  But, as many of you will know, in 1917 the British state declared its support for Zionism with the Balfour Declaration, named after Lord Arthur Balfour who was Foreign Secretary at the time.  Balfour himself was a pretty vile racist.  He is quoted as once saying: ‘We have to face the facts. Men are not born equal, the white and black races are not born with equal capacities: they are born with different capacities which education cannot and will not change.’  So, this is the sort of character we are dealing with in Balfour.

The precise wording of the Balfour Declaration was:

‘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.’

That middle bit about not prejudicing the rights of the non-Jewish communities living there sounds all well and good, but it was clear that this wasn’t on Balfour’s list of priorities.  He later said: ‘In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… Zionism is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.’  As history would show, the rights of non-Jews in Palestine would not be a priority for the Zionists either.

In fact, even in relation to the last bit of the Declaration about protecting the rights and status of Jews in other countries there are reasons to believe Balfour was less than genuine.  Balfour was quite anti-Semitic himself (as might be expected of a racist): in 1919 he wrote that the Zionist movement would ‘mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.’ Essentially he was saying Zionism would solve the problem of Jews living in Europe by exporting them to Palestine.

Such was Lord Balfour. But there were other reasons for British imperialism to support Zionism besides such anti-Semitic sentiments.  In the words of Ronald Storrs, who became military governor of Jerusalem in the same year as the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist movement would create a ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.’  In other words, Israel would be a useful ally to British imperialist interests in the Middle East.  The vital support offered by Israel to British and other imperialist intervention in the Middle East is evidence enough of this fact.

The British state also believed that by supporting Zionism it could counteract the influence of Bolshevism. Of course, traditional anti-Semitic tropes about communism being a global Jewish conspiracy were a significant factor in this thinking.  In 1917, before the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War, Britain thought that by supporting Zionism and sending a Zionist delegation to Russia it could counteract ‘Jewish pacifist propaganda in Russia’, thereby keeping its Russian ally in the war.  In 1920, Winston Churchill wrote a document called ‘Zionism vs Bolshevism’ – filled with quite a bit of anti-Semitic imagery of its own – where he basically said that there were good Jews and bad Jews, the good Jews being Zionists and the bad Jews being the Bolsheviks, and that Zionism must be supported so as to prevent Jews from being swayed to the international Jewish-communist conspiracy.  So much for the greatest Briton.

In any case, Britain took control of Palestine after WWI after Britain and France carved up the defeated Ottoman Empire amongst themselves.  With that and the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist movement found itself in a situation where the government in control of Palestine had declared its support for the establishment of a Jewish state there.  Over the following decades hundreds of thousands of Jews would be encouraged to migrate to Palestine with varying degrees of British support. But the numbers migrating were insufficient to create a Jewish majority in the land of historic Palestine.

The core dilemma that Zionism continued to face was the question of how to create a Jewish-majority state in a land that was already inhabited overwhelmingly by non-Jews.  Various strategies were devised to get rid of the Palestinians living there.  One such strategy was to purchase as much land as possible for Jewish-only use. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established in 1901 to buy up Palestinian land which could only be leased to Jews.  Many Palestinian peasants found themselves evicted from their lands by Zionists who had bought it from its previous large landowners. Another strategy was discrimination in employment: Histadrut, the unified Zionist trade union in Palestine, enforced a racist policy of exclusively Jewish employment.  But these tactics could only go so far.  By 1947, when the UN introduced its Partition Plan, only 33% of the population of Palestine was Jewish.

Despite this, the UN Partition Plan, which proposed to separate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, gave 55% of the land of Palestine to the Jewish state, leaving 45% for the majority Arabs. This was a massive victory and a step forward for the Zionist movement, but even that did not resolve the underlying problem. As David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first Prime Minister, would lament later that year:

‘In the area allocated to the Jewish State there are not more than 520,000 Jews and about 350,000 non-Jews, mostly Arabs… the total population of the Jewish State at the time of its establishment will be about one million, including almost 40% non-Jews. Such a composition does not provide a stable basis for a Jewish State. This fact must be viewed in all its clarity and acuteness. With such a composition, there cannot even be absolute certainty that control will remain in the hands of the Jewish majority ... There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60%.’

As the prospect of realising a Jewish state in Palestine drew closer, Zionist leaders increasingly came to see the need to remove the Arabs from the land in one way or another. As Joseph Weitz, Director of the JNF, put it: ‘It must be clear that there is no room in the country for both peoples … The only solution is a Land of Israel … without Arabs. There is no room here for compromises …There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries, and to transfer all of them, save perhaps a few.’  ‘Transfer’ is a very nice word to be using here.  One might argue that ‘ethnic cleansing’ would be an appropriate substitute.

With the establishment of Israel in 1948 this transfer was finally put into action, forcibly and on a mass scale.  Israeli militias and military forces attacked Palestinian towns and villages en masse between 1947 and 1949, killing 15,000 Palestinians.  The most well-known instance was in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, where over 100 civilians were massacred in one day.  Some of these were reported to have been mutilated, raped, and paraded through Jewish neighbourhoods before being executed.  There are many more accounts of the atrocities of that period which I do not have time to go into here.  I would recommend the book by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’, for a more thorough account.  All in all, between 1947 and 1948 around 850,000 Palestinians had been expelled from what is now the state of Israel, out of a total population of about 1.4 million.  Over 500 Palestinian towns and villages were completely wiped off the map.

Out of this mass ethnic cleansing the solution to the dilemma of Israel’s demographic balance had been found.  By the end of this period Israel controlled 77% of historic Palestine, with a sizeable Jewish majority.

To this day, Israel continues to refuse the right of Palestinians who were expelled in that and later wars their right to return to their homeland.  Palestinians who were born in the land, many of whom still hold the deeds to the land and the keys they used to open their homes, are not allowed to return.  By contrast, any Jewish person in the world is allowed to apply to migrate to Israel under Israeli ‘right to return’ laws purely by virtue of their being Jewish.

The reasoning behind this racist exclusion is the same dilemma that has always plagued Zionism: what is sometimes referred to as the ‘demographic threat’ – the need to maintain a Jewish demographic majority.

All sorts of examples of racism can be seen cropping up throughout Israeli society and Israeli policy:

  • A series of laws and practices that discriminate against Palestinian land ownership, including regular demolitions of Palestinian homes and discrimination against Palestinian building permit applications;
  • The forced sterilisation by the Israeli state of Ethiopian Jews who migrated to Israel (not only Palestinians suffer from the effects of the inherently racist character of the Israeli state);
  • The recent much-maligned Nation State Law which effectively codifies the second-class citizen status of Arabs in Israel.

But these are really just symptoms of the fundamental underlying problem, the core contradiction of Zionism: the impossibility of maintaining a ‘Jewish state’ in Palestine, a land populated predominantly by non-Jews, without overwhelming violence and oppression.  The need to avoid this ‘demographic threat’, this ‘ethnic calculus’ required to maintain a Jewish majority has been the driving force behind Zionist and Israeli policy towards the Palestinians from the very beginning.  In the years before the state of Israel was established, it meant encouraging mass migration of Jews into Palestine.  In 1948, it meant the forcible expulsion of the majority of Palestinians and the destruction of their villages. Today, it means continuing to deny the right of return to Palestinian refugees and refusing to grant political rights to the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.  The main reason why Israel hasn’t tried to officially annex the West Bank yet is because of the unfavourable ethnic balance that would create. To grant citizenship to all of the Palestinians living in historic Palestine would immediately shrink the Jewish majority in Israel.  Given Palestinian birth rates, it is estimated that the Palestinian population would become the majority in a few years.  And that’s the say nothing of the millions of Palestinian refugees living in exile. The result is what many have accurately called apartheid – millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and effective Israeli control, but denied political and democratic rights.  And of course, the massive settlement expansion into the occupied territories is another facet of the core issue, as Israel rapidly tries to establish a more favourable demographic make-up in as much Palestinian territory as possible.

All of these things are various forms of expressing that underlying contradiction, the need to maintain a Jewish majority.  So tangible is this fear of ethnic imbalance that it even extends to particular regions of the Israeli state. In 2010, 1,300 armed Israeli police officers entered al-Araqib, a small impoverish Bedouin Palestinian village in the Negev desert, in southern Israel.  They forcibly removed residents from their homes and destroyed 45 homes, leaving over 300 people homeless, half of whom were children.  Two days earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told government colleagues that a Negev ‘without a Jewish majority’ would pose a ‘palpable’ threat to the state.  Such demolitions of Palestinian villages in the Negev are commonplace; Al-Araqib has been demolished and rebuilt over 130 times.

And the thing is, when Zionist leaders like Netanyahu and Ben-Gurion talk about Palestinian people and Palestinian towns posing an ‘existential threat’ to the state of Israel, they are absolutely correct!  Let me be clear: I don’t mean that Palestinians pose an existential threat to the lives of Jewish people in Israel, their safety or their security.  What I mean is that insofar as Israel is to be characterised as a Jewish state, the Palestinian people will always pose a threat to it by the fact of their very existence, and the risk that they may ever exist in large enough numbers or concentrations to threaten Israel’s ethnic composition.  The right of Palestinians in the diaspora to return, the political rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories to full democratic rights – in short, the rights of the Palestinian people – do pose an existential threat to Israel.

This is what we mean when we say that Zionism is a racist ideology and that Israel is an inherently racist state.  In addition to being founded on a racist settler-colonial mentality that gave no regard to the rights of the Palestinians, the actual realisation of Zionism’s aims necessitated the destruction of the Palestinian nation.  Israel’s very existence as ‘Israel’, as a Zionist state, is premised on the denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinians.  It could not have been any other way.

To equate these criticisms of Zionism, Israel, or the foundation of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism is misguided at best and a deliberate attempt to undermine the just demands of the Palestinian people at worst.

The subjugation and expulsion of the Palestinian people, the denial of their rights to return and the enforcement of an apartheid system in Palestine, is not a coincidence, is not merely an avoidable consequence of bad policy or a few bad apples in an otherwise acceptable Zionist movement.  Comrades, supporters, friends, we must be unequivocal in saying it: the destruction of the Palestinian nation and the oppression of the Palestinian people was and is a necessary precursor to the realisation of the Zionist goal, is an unavoidable consequence of the establishment and maintenance of the Israeli state. This is the core of the conflict in Palestine, and there will be no just resolution to that conflict without a struggle against its racist core.  We are not anti-Semites.  We are anti-Zionists.

The Labour Party and Zionism

Now, as promised, I will touch briefly on the Labour Party’s historic support for Zionism.

More or less the dominant view on the left in Britain is that Labour started out as a genuinely progressive party, and only took on some reactionary characteristics around the time when Tony Blair came to power.  Up until that time, it is said, the Labour Party was basically an ally of the working class in Britain and abroad.

The RCG’s position on Labour is quite different: our view is that Labour is and always has been a reactionary, pro-imperialist party representing an alliance between imperialism and a privileged section of the working class which is bribed out of the super-profits of imperialism, the basis of its material benefits.  In return for a better deal for themselves, those privileged sections of the working class abandon any demands to overthrow capitalism and imperialism and content themselves with tinkering reforms that will give them a few more crumbs off of the imperialist table.  Such is our conception of the Labour Party – and looking at the history of Labour Party support for Zionism (just one aspect of its imperialist history) we can see the evidence of this.  In the interests of time I will touch on only a few key points.

In 1917, the Balfour Declaration was swiftly adopted by the Labour Party and British Trades Union Congress, which called for the formation of a ‘Free State’ to which the Jewish people could ‘return’.

In 1931 Labour Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald wrote an open letter to Chaim Weizmann, President of the Zionist Organisation and later first President of Israel, reiterating that one of the aims of the British mandate of Palestine was ‘to facilitate Jewish immigration and to encourage close settlement by Jews on the land’.  Of this, Weizmann later said, ‘It was under MacDonald’s letter that Jewish immigration to Palestine was permitted to reach figures… undreamed of in 1930.’  MacDonald’s Labour Party also expressed support for the Zionist policy I mentioned earlier of discrimination in employment against non-Jewish workers.  MacDonald later consulted Weizmann directly when deciding on a new High Commissioner in Palestine.  No such consultation took place with any representatives of the indigenous Palestinians.

In December 1944, the annual Labour Party conference adopted a motion which stated that: ‘In Palestine there surely is a case, on human grounds and to promote a stable settlement, for transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in.’  The drafter of the motion and later Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton was quoted as saying ‘in Palestine we should lean more towards the dynamic Jew, less towards the static Arab.’

Successive Labour governments would continue to provide extensive support to Israel, including political and material support in later wars and acts of aggression against the Palestinian people.  Such was the Labour Party’s contribution to the realisation of the Zionist project that Golda Meir, once Israel’s Prime Minister, said:  ‘One of the greatest factors in helping us to overcome our initial difficulties was the fact that from the very first, since 1917, we constantly received encouragement from the British Labour movement.’

I will make one final comment in terms of the Labour Party’s orientation towards imperialism generally.  I want to look at the words of Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary of the 1945 Labour Government (not to be confused with Nye Bevan, who was Health Secretary), who had this to say of British interests in the Middle East: ‘If these interests were lost to us, the effect on the life of this country would be a considerable reduction in the standard of living. The British interests in the Middle East contribute substantially not only to the prosperity of the people there, but also to the wage packets of the workers in this country.’

Just a few years later, in 1948, this same Labour government would introduce the NHS, and Israel would declare its statehood.

This quote by Ernest Bevin is a very clear expression of the nature and function of the Labour Party: a pro-imperialist party built on the basis of the material benefits imperialism grants to a privileged upper stratum of the working class. The truth is that there has never been an anti-Zionist government, let alone an anti-imperialist government, in this country, even when Labour has been in power, even when so-called ‘Old Labour’ was in power.  The protection of British imperialism, and of Britain’s ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster’ as it was once called, has always been Labour Party policy.  Recent events have clearly exposed how little room there is for manoeuvre on that fundamental reality.


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