8. The Jewish question

Submitted by Spassmaschine on December 17, 2009

Israel and Palestine : isn't it necessary to take sides, but what side ? Pro what, against what ? What about anti-Zionism and Zionism?

The minimum is to have a critique of both Zionism and anti-Zionism.

Thirty or forty years ago, just as he was pro-Vietnamese, the average leftist was pro-Palestinian: he longed for the creation of a State he thought would liberate the local masses, a State that would rule over a reunified Vietnam, thanks to the defeat of the GIs in Indochina, and a State that would rule the whole Palestinian territory thanks to the failure of Israel to impose its will upon the Arab population. Today, nearly all antiglobalisers accept the existence of the Israeli State and only want it to coexist with a neighbouring Palestinian State, or to become bi-national. There's obviously a political regression in the 2007 leftist endorsing the 1947 proposal of... the United Nations. But most of all there's a continuity: the left and far left have never had any critique of the State, and have always expected political power to solve social conflicts.

As for us, we're no more opposed to Israel as a State than to all other States, French, Vietnamese, Egyptian, and Kurdish, Tamil or Palestinian if these are to exist one day. There's no reason to confer any privilege to the Israeli State, a positive privilege on account of the age-old persecution of the Jews and the murder of millions of them in the 20th century, or a negative one because it is supposedly the Number One enemy of all Middle East peoples.

The destruction of Israel as a State does not mean the death or expulsion of five million Jewish Israeli citizens, any more than the destruction of France as a State implies the elimination of a couple of millions of civil servants or their re-education in forced labour camps. Like any institution, central political power needs human beings to keep it going, but it is primarily made of structures held together by social relations, and it's those relations we've got to change to get rid of the State. It will probably be more complex by the Jordan River than on the banks of the Thames or the Spree, but basically the process will be similar.

We're not there yet. Until then, a prerequisite is to understand what Jewish identity consists of, not in order to say it does not exist, but to situate its existence in history.

In 1843, when Marx wrote The Jewish question, he thought he was dealing with a reality that was already on the wane, because capitalism itself was going beyond such communities as the Jewish community. He could reasonably believe that the Jew who lived in Vilnius, the one who lived in Trier and the one who lived in Tunis shared only traditions rooted in a religion that was about to be secularised just like Christianity, that was bound to become a private matter, and later to wither away like all other religious alienations because of human emancipation provided by proletarian revolution. In Marx's eyes, dealing with the Jewish question helped clear the way for the real issue, the social question.

What was believable in 1843 was already less so in 1890 or 1910. Even in Marx's time, it became clear that capitalist development was not only causing the rise of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat, but also breeding forces that challenged the liberal ascendancy. Technical progress was going along with new cultural, intellectual and political regressions. Science was not replacing religion. Bourgeois rationality was not erasing superstition and racial prejudice. Science was even called upon to justify this novelty: modern anti-Semitism. In Russia, where most European Jews lived, since Poland belonged to the Tsarist empire, anti-Semitism was fierce. As shown by the evolution of the Bund, Jewish worker militancy was not being fused into the general all-Russian workers' movement. At the end of the 19th century, from Paris to Vienna, Europe witnessed the rise of new forms of mass anti-Semitism. Today, about a hundred and fifty years after Marx's essay, capitalism has not blended Jewishness among the rest of capitalist realities. Modernity has not come to terms with Jewishness as it has "digested" and secularised Christianity. On the contrary, it has consistently given Jewish identity a new life, mainly by a widespread and finally genocidal anti-Semitism that was a major (or maybe the decisive) factor in the development of Zionism, until this renewed Jewishness created what socialists (and then communists) thought absurd and impossible: the foundation of a specific Jewish State. The failure of proletarian revolution has produced what looks like a practical refutation of Marxian and Marxist critiques of the Jewish question.

The victors are always right, Mao once said (and he was an expert on proletarian defeats, since his success was based on one). This is probably why Marx's critique, after falling on nearly deaf ears in 1844, had only a few pages published again in 1881, then the whole text in 1902 and 1927, without ever being able to influence the course of events in Europe or the Middle East. To say the least, here again, our "needs" have not been "adequate for the utilisation of Marx's ideas".

It's not the social question that solved the Jewish question, it's pre-capitalist realities that survived to the extent of producing nations where they were the least expected. The undeniably universalising impetus of capitalism also creates and recreates differences and boundaries. In the case of the Jews, a previously mainly religious link turned national: the Law got incarnated in a land. True, this settlement happened at the expense of another population, but this can't be solved now by having two States instead of one, by completing the Jewish homeland by a second Palestinian one.

A Palestinian political power would be devoid of reality in the circumstances that prevail and show no sign of change. Suppose two million Ashkenazim Jews, two million Sephardic Jews and one million Russian Jews (if one wishes to regard these categories as valid) all peacefully and voluntarily resettled in Texas: the Palestinian masses would only win the possibility to be poor in their own home, like the Algerians after 1962, or the Blacks in Zimbabwe and South Africa since the end of apartheid. The emergence of Israel has only been an aggravating cause of the misery of the Palestinian proletarians. The social and geopolitical conditions that determine the (partly artificial) economic sustainability of Israel are not material objects, like railway tracks, orchards or high tech factories, that the Palestinians could use for their own benefit if the Jews left : they are more than things, they are social relations, and they exist only because the Jewish settlers brought the conditions (and not just money) that made and makes these railways, cash crop orchards or advanced technology locally and internationally viable.

"The people's right to self-government" has deprived many peoples of their rights. Once we understand that, what is to be done ? Here again, the Nothing But The Revolution attitude is valid as a statement of principle : if the principle is correct, the statement remains until now ineffectual, but there's no other way we can now contribute to the (very small) communist movement that exists in the Middle East.