RONNIE KASRILS considers the plight of Palestine as he pays tribute to the late Egyptian scholar and writer Abdelwahab Elmessiri, an authority on English literature and the Palestinian cause, in excerpts from a commemorative lecture at a Middle East Monitor (MEMO) event in London.
After the 1947-48 catastrophic Nakba the response of the dispossessed Palestinian people was initially seen as a matter of armed resistance to reclaim their land and expel alien Jewish settlers. After decades of struggle and sacrifice the notion of a two-state solution emerged. Neither approach has proved realisable.
Neither has the idea of a bi-national state which featured in debate among Jewish and Arab communists and progressives alike in the 1940s and which appealed to the likes of Albert Einstein and Martin Buber. As happened initially with communists in South Africa, the national question was not appreciated and judgement was distorted. For example after 1948 the Communist Party of Israel, Arab members included, issued membership cards titled “The Communist Party of Israeli Patriots”. For more details see Awad Abdelfattah.
Whether two-state or bi-national such confusion persists and militates against unity of progressive forces. In fact this is in contradistinction to the African National Congress-South African Communist Party (SACP) understanding that justice for the indigenous African people, the restitution of land and rights, was the primary requirement for change during the liberation struggle whilst recognising the right of all regardless of background to equal citizenship as expressed in the Freedom Charter.
The possibility of such an approach can be understood through the concept of Colonialism of a Special Type (CST) adopted by the SACP in 1962. It explained the form of settler colonialism operating where both the colonisers and colonised lived in the same territory as oppressor and oppressed and how this can be resolved in a unitary democratic state.
Questions arise: Can something akin to the CST concept assist in uniting the Palestinian people and formations, and point a new way forward with suitable methods of struggle? And to what degree would it help prise Israeli Jews – who, shorn of Biblical mythology, are essentially a transplant from 20th Century Europe – away from the colonial settler paradigm and accept a non-racist, unitary state of all the people? The views of Abdelwahab Elmessiri (commemorated in these lectures) are instructive and stem from his essay on the Functional Zionist State (FZS), which resonates with the CST thesis. (For more details see Elmessiri (2007), “From functional Jewish communities to the functional Zionist State,” pp. 108-160.)
Elmessiri argued that the concept of the functional state “is an analytical concept that has high explanatory power that can account for many aspects of the Zionist settler enclave, both in its general and specific traits and that this concept helps us understand the nature of the Arab-Israel conflict which would hopefully help us come up with some kind of permanent solution, and not simply a temporary one”. Any arrangement dividing people can only be a temporary solution.
His study of the functional exploitation of the Jewish elite, money lenders and tax collectors in Medieval Europe, and particularly the Poland-Ukraine-Russia of (Theodor) Herzl’s inner circle and experience, where most European Jews resided, has relevance. I quote from his thesis at some length to bring out its substance: “The Jewish functional group, a commercial settler colonial quasi-military group that played the role of intermediary between feudal lords and peasants and serfs, and the noble’s tool of ruthless exploitation, was transferred to Palestine to play the same role and discharge the same function within the framework of the Zionist functional state. The tripartite relationship (Polish nobles, Jewish colonial intermediaries and Ukrainian serfs) to a large extent resembles the tripartite relationship that currently dominates in the Middle East (American imperialism, Zionist colonial intermediaries, Arabs of Palestine). The Jewish element in both cases is a useful colonial one that is maintained not because of its intrinsic worth, but because of its utility.”
Elmessiri noted Zionism’s appeal to Western imperialism: “As Theodor Herzl negotiated for a national homeland” he argued that his Zionist movement … could help in ‘draining off the surplus Jewish proletariat’ (of Europe) and … once transferred … outside Europe, they would be assigned a new function to form a settler colonial state that would at once absorb the transferred surplus and serve the interests of the Western world. This would in return, guarantee its survival and continuity and provide it with financial, political and economic aid, necessary for its survival. In other words, it is a functional state.”
Western leaders, post-World War Two, eager to be rid of displaced Jews, found it strategically convenient to facilitate the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Elmessiri continued: “This was done on the premise that the Jews in Palestine are an independent demographic element whose security could be guaranteed by the West, and for which it could realise a high standard of living, provided that the settler enclave performed the function of defending Western strategic interests in the region. Financial support was extended to a colonial and alien demographic element, in return for it performing a strategic military role. The said role is the basic commodity that the settler colonial enclave produces and that the West acquires in return for the financial, political, and military support it provides. Anything apart from this is no more than mere apologetics or marginal details that have very little explanatory power.”
Herzl made no bones about placing a future Jewish state at the disposal of imperialism. Such a state would constitute for Europe in Palestine “a part of the wall against Asia, and serve as the vanguard of civilization against barbarism”. Herzl (1961), The Complete Diaries, Op. cit.
This prophetic “functionalism” was demonstrated soon after Israel’s independence, in the joint invasion of Egypt in 1956, with Britain and France, and seizure of the Suez Canal. Little wonder that back in 1921 Winston Churchill, then Britain’s colonial secretary, had observed: “Zionism is good for the Jews and good for the British Empire.” (David Schafer (2002), “Triumph and Catastrophe”, The Humanist, Nov-Dec. )
After the Suez intervention the US demonstrated its willingness to become Israel’s “chief backer”. US military aid to Israel represents the largest transfer of funds from one country to another in history, estimated at $100-billion from 1949 to the end of the 20th century. (For more details see: “USA Jews for Justice.”)
President George W Bush magnanimously provided Israel with a $30-billion military aid programme announced following Israel’s 2006 onslaught on the Lebanon. (“US and Israel in $30bn arms deal,” BBC News, 16 August 2007.)
Despite differences with (Benjamin) Netanyahu, President (Barack) Obama has replenished Israel’s military arsenal to the tune of billions of dollars, after every horrifying assault on Gaza.
President (Ronald) Reagan explained in 1981 the reason for such lavish aid: “With a combat experienced military, Israel is a force in the Middle East that is actually a benefit to us. If there were not Israel with that force, we’d have to supply it with our own.” [Nasser Aruri (2003), Dishonest Broker: The US Role in Israel and Palestine, (Cambridge, MA: South End Press).]
An example of one of the most cynical functional services Israel performs for the West is the turning of Gaza into a permanent open air laboratory for the testing of the international arms industry’s state of the art munitions. This is a vital utility for 21st century imperialism’s military needs. (This “function” has been brilliantly exposed in a documentary film, The Lab, by an Israeli journalist, Yotam Feldman. For more details on the film see here. For a critical appraisal of the documentary see here.)
Such a real time, live test circuit meets the wildest dreams of the arms industry. As the weapons designers perfect their latest stock of developed technology they must count the hours and days to Israel’s forthcoming round on the killing fields of Gaza.
The nexus between America and Israel rules out any solid belief that the US can perform the function of “honest broker”. Israel’s rulers are clearly aware that whatever their differences, Washington will stand by them. Netanyahu understands this better than most and plays the hand adroitly. In his slickness he well knows how to appeal to the western media who ultimately take their cue from American interests and have made global brainwashing an art in keeping with their obfuscating role.
Palestinians seeking a negotiated settlement through American goodwill are bound to come up against a dead end or should we say Herzl and (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky’s “iron wall” – a wall not only to secure the Zionist state but to enable it to perform a function supporting US and Western interests in the region and beyond.
Elmessiri, however, points out that throughout history “functional groups” of ancient and medieval times, ultimately outlive their function, through the emergence of the modern nation state. They become a liability and their people are dispensed with or may become assimilated into the wider society. Some examples provided are Japanese Samurai, Hebrew mercenaries in the Hellenic period, Papal Swiss Guards, Ottoman Janessaries, Cossacks, Gurkhas and Mamlukes, Prussian mercenaries who interestingly served the British in South Africa and so on. Not only mercenaries, however, for he cites the many categories of traders such as Arab, Lebanese, Chinese, Indian who followed the trade routes from ancient times. He stresses that there is nothing intrinsic to the Jewish people about financial and commercial skills; rather that the acumen derives from the functional role. Outright collaborative regimes such as Vichy France, Quisling Norway, South Africa’s Bantustan leaders, might qualify more as temporary tools of an imperial or occupying power, of very transient worth, rather than fully fledged functional groups possessing organic socio-economic utility.
Many Israeli Jews, like white South Africans, do not have the convenient choice of former settlers in the classical colonial nexus (Algeria, Burma, Ceylon, Indonesia, Kenya, Zambia etc) to fall back on foreign passports. Furthermore many have come to acquire an identity with the country in which they have lived for generations. Afrikaner families can trace their ancestry back to 17th century settlers in the Cape; and English settlers to the 1820’s. Israeli Sabras might not go back that long but are a very different kettle of fish to those transients latterly out of Belorussia and Brooklyn. Those prepared to accept equality with their fellow citizens have in South Africa been able to find a settled future after equal rights for all citizens has been guaranteed by the country’s new constitution.
Whilst it is possible that the US might in time find Zionist Israel a liability and of less import than other Arab interests this does not imply the end of the Jews in Palestine. The more those of settler origin come to share common values and a shared vision with the indigenous people, the stronger the process of integration and nation building.
The process that led the PLO to Oslo saw mainstream Palestinian armed resistance being replaced by the inaction and collaboration (as some see it) of a Palestine Administration (PA), and demonstrably phoney negotiations around the two-state notion. (The UN granted the PLO observer status on 22 November 1974 as per UNGA resolution 3237. UNGA resolutions 3210 and 3236 recognised the PLO as “representative of the Palestinian people.”) The process has come to be regarded as a dead end; split Palestinian ranks; increased illegal settlements in the West Bank; failed to end military occupation; increased Palestinian suffering and destitution; witnessed the siege and pulverisation of Gaza; encouraged rampant racism in Israel. With prescience Edward Said referred to the Oslo Accords as “a Palestinian Treaty of Versailles”. Edward Said (1993), “The Morning After,” in London Review of Books, vol. 15, no. 20, October 21, pp. 3 – 5. For more details see here.
Given the impasse what may be learnt from the strategy and tactics of the liberation struggle for South Africa? The strategy is best summed up in the Four Pillars formula:
Political mass struggle;
clandestine underground struggle;
Although separate they were meant to develop and complement one another.
Political struggle was primary and not to be subordinated to the military. The underground network gave leadership to open, public organisations and to the masses, issued leaflets, assisted clandestine organisers and armed combatants. Whilst the development of mass struggle within South Africa was fundamental, international solidarity helped tip the balance. It took some 30 years but the Anti-Apartheid Movement became an incalculable factor in isolating the racist regime and contributing to its demise.
Israel’s ruling elite, corrupt and bereft of vision, can no longer rule in the old way. Military aggression and extreme chauvinism cannot solve their problems. The Palestinians are not prepared to live under the old conditions and are increasingly rejecting the PA route. Their struggle will have its ups and downs but will not cease. What the Palestinians and progressive Israelis fundamentally require is clarity of vision that unites and inspires them; and a strategic programme of action around appropriate methods.
At the start of the Arab Spring in 2011 there was enormous hope that a new balance of forces, favouring democracy, was in the making that would assist the Palestinians. This appears to have been dashed.
The following factors, however, can be identified as contrary to the bleak situation they face:
The heroic people of Gaza have shown remarkable tenacity in surviving the blockade and the barbaric onslaught by the Israeli Defence Force;
Protest within the West Bank continues. Palestinian civil society has emerged radiating a powerful promise of new forms of mobilisation and resistance. The emergent political co-ordinating committees are significant grass root expressions of peaceful, militant forms of resistance;
Within Israel a positive development has been the success of the Joint “Arab” List (formed by the Islamic Movement, communist Hadash which includes Jews, and nationalist Balad) winning 13 seats in the March 2015 elections. (The Joint List received 446,583 votes (10.46%) of the 4.2 million votes cast in the March, 2015 elections; giving them 13 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. Netanyahu’s Likud came top with 30 seats (23.4% of the vote). The Zionist Camp of Hertzog and Livni got 24 seats (18.67%). The Joint List followed in third place. ) They aim to transform the Knesset into an ideological battlefield and transmit a non-sectarian signal to all Palestinians. Balad’s secretary general, Awad Abdel Fattah, commented that the Joint List has “fundamentally changed the discourse among the Palestinians in Israel”, and “puts the Arab parties on a shared path towards the much delayed goal of reorganising our community”. For more details see Awad Abdelfattah:
The Palestinians within Israel have been underestimated. Yet there have been plenty of signs of their rising spirit: from the turning point in 2000 when mass mobilisation confronted the authorities seeing 13 protesters killed by the police; For more details on this incident, which the Arab community refers to as the October Ignition, see here.) demonstrations in Haifa and the Negev last year against the relocation of the Bedouin; the recent semi-uprising in East Jerusalem against the racist lynching of young Palestinians.
Internal contradictions, both class and race, in a capitalist society like Israel, has seen simmering resentment among Mizrachi (Arab) Jews at their inferior status under the dominant Ashkenazi from Europe. Racial and class discrimination has been experienced even more so by the Ethiopian Jews who in May protested in Tel Aviv against the police beating an Ethiopian army officer. Underestimated too are the courageous actions of Jewish protesters and civic organisations from women monitoring the check-points, to journalists and writers such as Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim bearing testimony, to activists against house demolitions such as Jeff Halper, and youth refusing army service prepared to go to jail.
BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel), in its 10th year, has emerged as a weapon internationally that is going from strength to strength at a faster rate than that of the Anti-Apartheid Movement of yesteryear and spreading acute alarm among the Zionist elite who regard it now as a strategic threat to their rule.
The anti-Zionist protests from the Arab Street, and notably Egyptian, can ignite at any time. The actions of the Arab working class, students and academics will not be blunted by authoritarian rule. Mass pressure on their governments for action against Israel could increase precisely in the space where the democratic process has been closed down.
The once dominant Zionist narrative has been overturned by the sustained research and writings of Arab and Israeli historians and commentators; the horrific televised images of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza; the advocacy of Palestine solidarity organisations around the world, Jewish anti-Zionist opponents among them; the influence of AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) diminishes as younger American Jews refuse to show blind loyalty to Israel.
Whatever the weaknesses of the United Nations and of Israel’s flouting of international law concerning military occupation and war crimes, the global community continues to hold Zionist Israel to account. This raises the ultimate threat of enactment of the raft of resolutions Israel defies, including the Rights of the Refugees. Recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN General Assembly and the European Union is indicative of the attitude.
An outstanding question relates to Israel’s functional utility for the US. To what extent might this be loosened or undermined? Contradictions between the US and Israel are appearing in differences over America’s strategic concerns including its relations with Iran. The US government and corporate rulers by no means stand by Israel for sentimental reasons. In time functional groups lose their utility and become dispensable.
Israel’s political economy – as in South Africa post apartheid – in this era of free market neo-liberalism is likely to morph into a distorted unitary state of sorts in which Zionism’s capitalist elite will seek to adapt, control and co-opt all Palestinian and Israeli life to further its and Western imperialist interests. This is the next battle to prepare for even now as the old forms of exploitation and control give way to the new. This is all the more reason for the working class and democratic forces of the region, and internationally, to unite and prepare for the 21st century stage of struggle.
Abdelwahab Elmessiri, a profoundly humanistic person, expressed the following hope in 2006:
“Why should the South African model not serve as a model for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, keeping in mind the specific nature of the Zionist enclave? (Apartheid) South Africa was dismantled, and the white (settler) population was absorbed in the new regime. The ‘destruction’ of the racist regime did not mean the destruction (the extermination or the expulsion) of the alien demographic element that was transferred from Europe. A similar situation could obtain in occupied Palestine. … A multi-ethnic, multi-religious state could integrate all.”
Netanyahu and his ilk, caught up in the frenzy of Israel’s colonial racism, will not find their way out of the morass. Reactionaries throughout history underestimate a people’s spirit of resistance which they can never subdue. That is a key lesson from South Africa and elsewhere.
Our Palestinian Alice (lost on the road in Wonderland as referred to in Part 1) with a clear destination in mind, and a fighting spirit personified by the word sumud, is aware of the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: No easy walk to freedom. With a unifying inspirational vision, with the correct strategy and tactics, Alice and her people are bound like Mandela to find their way home. DM
Photo: Ronnie Kasrils.
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