Letter (on Palestinian nationalism) - John Bunzl

PLO fighters, 1971.
PLO fighters, 1971.

Comments on Tamari's letter (Khamsin 6) and Ja'far's reply (Khamsin 7) about Palestinian nationalism.

Submitted by Ed on May 7, 2014

As I understand Salim Tamari, by his support for a Palestinian state hedoes not imply automatic support for the various concrete policies ofthe PLO leadership. His point is that 'a Palestinian state will providethe necessary prerequisite for the transformation of the essentiallynational conflict... into one in which the conditions for classemancipation (on both the Arab and Jewish side) [this phrase is omitted in Ja'far's quotation-J.B.] can be obtained for the first time. This requires… that the Palestinians have the opportunity to live in a stablecommunity in which their national culture and physicial security can beprotected; ie in a state of their own.' At this stage of my comment I wantto summarise my position by saying that the only word in Tamari's analysis I do not agree with is the word 'will' at the beginning of thequotation, which should be substituted by the word 'could'.

Tamari goes on to say that the Palestinians outside the occupied territories cannot struggle 'on class lines'; he does not say however – as Ja'far implies - that their struggle has to be on the 'class programme. . . of the Palestinian bourgeoisie'. What he does say, and quite rightly I think, is that since a refugee population is the social basis of the movement, the resistance by necessity will have almost only nationalgoals (a state, 'return '). I am not so sure if inside the occupied territoriesand in Israel 'all forms of class consciousness' are excluded;because - as Tamari himself points out - a 'proper' and 'differentiated class structure' does exist there.

The main difference between Tamari and Ja'far is on the eventual significance of a Palestinian state for further struggles for emancipation. In this respect I think the views of Tamari are much closer to revolutionary realism than those of Ja'far.

Tamari does not say anywhere - as Ja'far often 'quotes' - that a Palestinian state will 'solve' the national question, nor that such a statewill provide conditions for the class emancipation of Palestinian workers only.

Although he does not elaborate, I am sure Tamari would agree that aPalestinian state could only be the beginning and not the end of astruggle for further objectives, of which some quite important ones will still be 'national': right of the refugees to choose between return and compensation, full equality for the Palestinian national minority in Israel - which implies the de-zionisation of this state. I am sure that thePalestinians would be in a better position to press for these demands if they had a state of their own. I also think that afterwards the main form of struggle will be a political one, thus facilitating an impact on Jewish workers, who, one could expect, would be less burdened by the zionist nationalist elements of their consciousness.

Of course most of these positive effects also depend on the kind ofstruggle that is waged now, on the political forces that participate in itand on their relative weight: these factors (among other, external ones) will determine the character of an eventual Palestinian state and theconditions for further struggles.

Because this picture does not correspond to the teachings of the'permanent revolution' and smacks of the 'two-stage theory', it is rejected by Ja'far. If reality does not correspond to theory, the worse forreality. I would reject as dogmatic and sectarian the tendency to approach every problem with a pre-fabricated theory which corresponds to the 'lessons' of a certain experience (and even that may be questioned);but even the theory of permanent revolution does not say that the 'backward' bourgeoisie is incapable of taking any steps in the directionof national independence. And nobody will doubt that countries such as India, Syria or Egypt have achieved a certain degree of independenceand sovereignty which the Palestinians are still lacking.

If the theory of permanent revolution is 'true', the Palestinian socialist Tamari must be 'wrong'. In order to fit him into his role as a'two-stage theorist' he is even reported to justify the 'subservience and. . . dissolution of the organisations of the Palestiniari Left' which - asJa 'far himself indicates - do not exist(!?) (p 152). Then Ja'far goes onto explain - similarly to zionist spokesmen - that a Palestinian statewould give rise to just another backward Arab regime and that such astate would be 'unviable' anyway. Why? Because the PLO is 'intrinsically' incapable of doing better. Therefore even continuing occupation is better than a Palestinian state! Because - here Ja'far providessome arguments that zionist apologetics, lacking imagination, havefailed to produce - then, 'even the very limited democratic rights enjoyed[!] by the West Bank population today, under Israeli occupation, will be taken away. . . " the 'material standard of living' would'decline' and therefore the 'willingness to struggle for a better future 'would also 'decline'. (p 153) (So what? The standard of living is not the main concern today anyway.) Why is Ja'far not ready to consider the specific experience of the Palestinian people, which is different from all other examples in the Arab world? Why doesn't he give them a chance to learn from their specific history which has put them in opposition to both zionism and the Arab regimes? Any visit to the West Bank (and among Palestinians in Israel) will convince the unprejudiced observer that

- the Palestinian masses' political consciousness is considerable;

- the experience with Israeli capitalism has also had some consciousness-raising aspects (questions of democratic, union and women's rights);

- there is no intention to return to the 'Jordanian' pre-1967 conditions;

- there is universal agreement that any solution is preferable tocontinuing occupation;

- there is - on the other hand - little intention to cut off contacts with Israeli society (and the Palestinians living in it) entirely;

- the wish to establish an independent Palestinian state is virtually unanimous;

- mass support for the PLO is almost universal.

What does Ja'far propose as an alternative to the struggle for aPalestinian State? 'The programmatic goal of revolutionary socialistsshould be the creation of a thoroughly new socialist order.' Fine. Andhow should the Palestinian masses struggle for socialism, when they arestill lacking their elementary human and national right? No. The struggle for these rights is 'nationalism' and a 'completely dead-end road'.. .

It is true that Ja'far does not only offer his 'programmatic goal'. Healso 'dares' to put forward an immediate demand: 'withdrawal fromthe occupied territories'. But this demand is full of contradictions in thecontext of Ja'far's reasoning. On the one hand the realisation of thisdemand would - under foreseeable conditions at least - inevitably lead to the creation of the (rejected) Palestinian state. On the other hand thisdemand would contradict Ja'far's wish for 'maintaining the unity ofthe Palestinian masses in the pre-1967 borders of Israel and those in theWest Bank, and increasing - not decreasing - the access of Palestiniansas a whole to the Israeli economy.'

I don't see any contradiction between the struggle for the withdrawal from the occupied territories and the struggle for a Palestinian state. I also don't see a contradiction between this struggle and the struggle to build bridges to the Jewish proletariat and … for the hearts and mindsof the Jewish working class and the gradual breakup and erosion of theideological hegemony exercised by the zionist leadership' - a strugglewhich is absolutely necessary and should be supported by all means.

The struggle for a Palestinian state - being máinly political- cannot and will not lead to a real separation between the two peoples, but it will be the starting point for a fundamental (and necessary) change of therelations between them.

Just as Salim Tamari should not worry about not abiding by thetheory of permanent revolution, he should also not care about hisalleged 'Borochovism'. The same faulty reasoning is behind bothaccusations. The question is not whether a political project correspondsto this or that historical theory but whether it corresponds to the needs and interests of the oppressed classes and peoples of a given region, at agiven time and under given conditions. And in this respect I preferSalim Tamari to Mohammad Ja 'far.

John Bunzl

Vienna, May 1980