Wrong about apartheid’s “right”

August 7, 2014

Mariano Silva challenges the position on Israel expressed by Socialist Alternative.

I FIRST want to congratulate Socialist Worker on its ongoing coverage of the Israeli assault on Gaza and the role it is playing in building both immediate and long-term struggle against Israel apartheid, against U.S. imperialism and in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

In particular, the reprinting of the article by Mostafa Omar, "How should revolutionaries view Hamas?", and the editorials (such as "Who's afraid of BDS?") and articles (such as "Is boycotting Israel anti-Semitic?) about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, are critical to charting a path forward for our movements.

Relevant to the question raised by your recent editorial "Who's Afraid of BDS?" I want to point your readers' attention to the critical attitude toward BDS by the U.S. socialist group Socialist Alternative--and even more significantly its recognition of the right of the Israeli apartheid state to exist.

Socialist Alternative achieved an important step forward for the U.S. left with member Kshama Sawant's victory in last November's election for Seattle City Council. But its disappointing positions on questions related to Israel and Palestine ought to be scrutinized, especially with Israel engaged in a barbaric military offensive against Gaza.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

In an article headlined "Boycotting Israel: The Socialist View" that was published last year on the Socialist Alternative website, Judy Beishon, a member of the British Socialist Party, sister group to Socialist Alternative, wrote:

Israeli Jewish workers genuinely fear for their own security and want to protect the state that was intended to be a safe haven for Jews. This, with the constant barrage of propaganda, unsurprisingly leads them to believe that advocates of the BDS campaign around the world don't understand the situation in Israel. Also, many of the Israeli Jews who are most critical of their government's brutality against the Palestinians at the same time don't see why Israeli workers should be punished for it by suffering the effects of boycotts.

So it needs to be taken into account that boycott campaigns can assist the propaganda of the Israeli government domestically, and can create a barrier between workers in Israel and internationally, negative consequences that need to be weighed up against the advantages.

Readers’ Views

SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

Thus, Socialist Alternative and its international co-thinkers, who belong to the Committee for a Workers International, view the BDS campaign at least partially through the lens of the concerns of and consequences for Jewish Israelis.

It should be noted that Jewish Israelis, from rich to poor, explicitly enjoy numerous rights and freedoms that even Palestinian citizens of Israel, not to mention Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank, do not--and that fully 95 percent of Jewish Israelis considered the current war on Gaza to be "completely" or "moderately" justified, according to a poll taken in July. (Fully 80 percent think the war is "completely" justified, and less than 4 percent think the Israeli military used excessive firepower in its onslaught.)

SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE'S attitudes about Israeli Jewish workers is consistent with the political position about the right of Israel to exist maintained historically by the international grouping to which both Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Party in Britain belong, the Committee for a Workers International (CWI). A 2002 article from the CWI's SocialistWorld.net website states:

Genuine Marxists opposed the establishment of Israel, recognizing that it was built on the suffering of the Palestinian people, and moreover would become a bloody trap for the Israeli Jews. However, Israel is now in existence and over time the population have developed a national consciousness.

Given this, to deny the Israeli Jews the right to their own nation, is a violation of the right to self-determination. Moreover, it is unachievable given the military backing of U.S. imperialism from the Israeli state.

This belief in the right of Israelis to their own nation informs the CWI's and Socialist Alternative's position on BDS. But it is premised on a fundamentally wrong view of the socialist principle of the right of nations to self-determination. There is no support in the genuine Marxist tradition for the position that a colonial settler state--which is, by definition, an apartheid state, whether it is a Jewish state, in which non-Jews are politically disenfranchised; or the apartheid state of South Africa, in which non-white South Africans were politically disenfranchised--has a right to exist.

Because of its nature of an apartheid state, Israel's right to exist depends on the systematic oppression and slow-motion genocide of the Palestinian people. In 2001, Arjan El Fassed, a human rights activist and cofounder of the Electronic Intifada website, spelled this out in response to New York Times propagandist and Zionist Thomas Friedman:

You seem to be surprised to hear that there are still problems of 1948 to be solved, the most important component of which is the right to return of Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not just an issue of military occupation and Israel is not a country that was established "normally" and happened to occupy another country in 1967. Palestinians are not struggling for a "state" but for freedom, liberation and equality...

In the last few years, and especially during the reign of the Labor Party, Israel showed that it was not even willing to return what it occupied in 1967; that settlements remain, Jerusalem would be under exclusive Israeli sovereignty, and Palestinians would not have an independent state, but would be under Israeli economic domination with Israeli control of borders, land, air, water and sea.

Israel was not thinking of a "state," but of "separation." The value of separation is measured in terms of the ability of Israel to keep the Jewish state Jewish, and not to have a Palestinian minority that could have the opportunity to become a majority at some time in the future. If this takes place, it would force Israel to either become a secular democratic or bi-national state, or to turn into a state of apartheid not only de facto, but also de jure.

El Fassed wrote his "memo" to Friedman as if it was penned by African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela (a satirical nod at Friedman's own columns written as mock letters from one world leader to another)--and he thus rightly likened the Palestinian struggle for "freedom, liberation and equality" to the South African struggle for freedom.

He was absolutely correct to insist that Israel was not a nation "established 'normally,'" and that its internal logic is premised on apartheid--on "separation." The genocidal hysteria exhibited by the Israeli military in its war on Gaza, and shared by the overwhelming majority of the Jewish Israeli population, is not an accident, but a product of this internal logic. (For more on this matter, see journalist Max Blumenthal's book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, as well as British socialist Richard Seymour's recent article "How much fascism?")

THIS IS the context--Socialist Alternative's critical positions about BDS and its recognition of the right of the Israeli apartheid state to exist--needed to understand Kshama Sawant's recent statement about the Gaza assault.

Sawant's statement was criticized by pro-Israel Democrats on the City Council for its condemnation of the war on Gaza. But supporters of Palestinian liberation should take issue with her criticisms of the Palestinian organization Hamas that has been blamed by Israel for "provoking" the savage assault.

The original draft of Sawant's statement was reported as including the following: "We also condemn the indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas against the civilian population living in Israel. We stand in solidarity with the ordinary people of Israel and their desire for security, and in particular with the Israeli anti-war movement. We stand in solidarity with the ordinary people of both Israel in their desire for security."

The statement from Sawant published by Socialist Alternative excluded the language about "standing in solidarity" with Israelis, but did notably include the following: "Rocket attacks by Hamas against Israelis also must be condemned. When they hurt anyone, they hurt innocent civilians and give an excuse for Israel's ruling class to further unleash their war machine."

Even while correctly recognizing the disproportionate force used by the Israeli military and condemning the assault on Gaza, Sawant's statement accepts the logic of liberal and not-so-liberal defenses of Israel that Hamas rockets provoked the onslaught--and that the rockets are merely fired in a conventional military conflict, rather than as an act of resistance by an oppressed people facing much better armed enemy.

Socialists should respond differently--by defending the right of the oppressed to resist the violence of the oppressor. We should show our solidarity by rallying around the call made by Palestinians themselves for an international campaign to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, just as apartheid South Africa faced a similar campaign decades ago.

We can't show that solidarity if we "weigh up" the concerns of Jewish Israelis--or accept that the right of Palestinians to self-determination is limited in any way by the right of Israel to exist as an apartheid state.

Further Reading

From the archives