Catastrophe, historical memory, and the Left: 60 years of Israel-Palestine

Historians Group
Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

Some readers will doubtless find my decision to republish this 2008 article by the Platypus “Historians Group” (which no longer seems to exist in any meaningful way) questionable in light of Chris Cutrone’s unfortunate remarks, made in private, regarding the so-called “rational kernel of racism.” Like many of his formulations, this was clearly intended as a provocation against the received wisdom of the Left — however extravagant and misguided it may have been in this instance.

In any case, he has since explained himself in a manner that I consider satisfactory. Therefore, I see no problem posting this older piece, written on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. Given the recent ground invasion into Gaza, the latest round of violence in this decades-old territorial dispute, it is perhaps worth remembering how this whole wretched situation came to pass.

The contours of the present day Middle East have been shaped by a mid-twentieth century triptych of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The first panel in this triptych is the “Holocaust” [the “Shoah” in Hebrew, or “Khurbn” in Yiddish], the systematic murder of approximately two-thirds of European Jewry by the Nazis in 1941-1945. The second panel is the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the Zionists in 1947-1949, the “Nakba.” The third panel, which does not have a commonly accepted name, is the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries. Most of these ended up in Israel, where they strengthened the Zionist state in crucial ways despite frequently encountering racial discrimination there at the hands of Ashkenazi Jews.

Each of these catastrophes was both a product of the failure of the Left and paved the way for further defeats.

Before the Holocaust, Zionism — despite persistent and rising anti-Semitism throughout most of Europe — was distinctly a minority movement among European Jews, who for the most part trusted to liberalism and varieties of socialism and communism to beat back the rising tide of barbarism. On a per capita basis, more than any other Europeans, European Jews played central roles in the European Left. The triumph of Zionism is centrally and tragically predicated on the failure of the European Left to stop Hitler. Palestinians have become the secondary victims of this failure.


Secondly, the failure within Mandate Palestine to develop an anti-Zionist politics on a progressive basis meant that Palestinians’ just and necessary struggle against Zionism and British imperialism took on a communalist character — which, in the face of military defeat by the Yishuv in 1947-1949, led to the Nakba.

Thirdly, the retaliatory expulsions and persecution of Mizrahi Jews strengthened Zionism both materially and ideologically: materially, by greatly fortifying Israel’s demographic base; ideologically, by appearing to confirm that Jews could not live in peace as minorities in the Arab world. If the Palestinians are the secondary victims of the disaster that overtook European Jews, Mizrahi Jews were in a sense the tertiary victims.

A hundred years ago, none of these catastrophes could have been foreseen. They happened not because of “human evil” but because of a series of defeats of the Left. It is important to commemorate and to mourn, but it is even more important to understand. Against all forms of nationalist chauvinism, racism, and religious obscurantism, we uphold the ideals of socialist internationalism. Zionism arose as a reaction to anti-Semitism and claimed to offer the oppressed Jews of Europe freedom and dignity but instead it has only resulted in turning the Jews into the oppressors of another people, and Israel at sixty is a garrison state. There is probably no country in the world where Jews live in greater physical danger.

Yet Palestinian nationalism has also clearly reached a dead end in both its Fatah and Hamas variants. Neither the endless “peace process” nor Katyusha rockets shot by Islamic fundamentalists at working-class Israeli towns point towards an emancipatory politics. We agree with Lenin, who wrote that Marxism is incompatible with “even the ‘most just’ nationalism.” Solidarity with the victims of national oppression must not be confused with supporting the nationalism of the oppressed.

Zionism and Jewish history provide the classic warning in this respect! We must resist the emotional blackmail that equates natural sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust with support for Zionism or Israeli nationalism. By that same token, however, we must not conflate natural sympathy for the victims of the Nakba (and continuing Zionist oppression!) with support for Palestinian nationalism.

Furthermore, we emphatically emphasize along with our Enlightenment predecessors that any emancipatory politics must be resolutely secular. One of the great victories of the Enlightenment was the triumph of a practical godlessness in politics. To struggle against Zionism and imperialism under the banner of Islam is a recipe for catastrophe. If the Left allows its own struggle against Zionism and imperialism to reduce it to mere cheerleaders for Islamist “resistance,” it will be a greater disaster still.

Another world is possible. But it is first necessary to tell the truth about where we are and how we got here.

4 thoughts on “Catastrophe, historical memory, and the Left: 60 years of Israel-Palestine

  1. Ross – While the internal problems between the different communities (Askenazi, Sepharedi, Cherkesi, Druze, Arab Christian, Arab Muslem, Bedoine) are myriad, this is still a secular society. All citizens enjoy equal rights, at least in theory though the reality is less than perfect.

    One of the many misconceptions is the confusion between the very challenging issues of a secular democracy with the existential threats to the country. Clearly the politicians emphasize the external threats to shroud their failure to address the internal conflicts and failures.Such is the nature of politics.

    The nationalist agenda of Israel is indeed instructed by the perception of a real existential threat. Given that over 35% of the current Jewish population are descendant from Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust, as Cutrone’s article points out, reinforces this conviction. Within Israel however, the debate is between neo-liberal capitalism and a humanist socialism. The many shortcomings should not obscure the fundamental aspirations of this society to be a model of liberalism, democracy, social solidarity.

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