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

The Platypus Historians Group

Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008

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The contours of the present day Middle East have been shaped by a mid -20th century triptych of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The first panel in this triptych is the “Holocaust” (“Shoah” in Hebrew, “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,” and the third panel which does not have a commonly accepted name is the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mizrachi Jews from Arab countries, most of whom ended up in Israel where they strengthened the Zionist state in crucial ways even though frequently they encountered 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 just and necessary struggle of Palestinians 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 Mizrachi 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, Mizrachi 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, Platypus upholds 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 60 is a garrison state. There is probably no country in the world where Jews live in greater physical danger.

But 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. Platypus agrees with Lenin as he put it that Marxism is incompatible with “even the most refined nationalism” and 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 and 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. The triumph of a practical godlessness in politics is one of the great victories of the Enlightenment. To struggle against Zionism and Imperialism under the banner of Islam is a recipe for catastrophe and it will be a disaster for the Left if it allows its own struggle against Zionism and Imperialism to cause it to become mere cheerleaders for Islamist “resistance.”

Another world is possible. But it is first necessary to tell the truth about where we are and how we got here. Platypus seeks to provoke such conversations on the Left. |P

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