The Birth of the Zionist State

A Marxist Analysis

First published in Workers Vanguard: Part 1 in No.33, November 1973, Part 2 in No.45, May 1974.

Part 1: Jewish Colonization in Palestine

While the “Yom Kippur” war of 1973 is the direct result of the defeat of the Arab states by Israel in the 1967 war, it is more fundamentally the product of the conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism which has torn apart Palestine since the demise of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. To determine what position to take in the present war it is useful to look at the whole process of Balkanization in the Near East which resulted in the formation of a Zionist state side by side with a series of artificial royal states and “republics” led by petty-bourgeois military cliques, all of them (to different degrees) subject to imperialist domination. In particular, we must look at the 1948 war which led to the present state of Israel and the simultaneous expulsions of several hundred thousand Arabs from their homes and lands.

For the Zionists the 1948 war was an “anti-imperialist” war of “national liberation,” the creation of a haven for a people decimated by fascist genocide. For the Palestinian Arabs 1948 was the origin of their “diaspora,” the destruction of their nation, the deprivation of their means of livelihood and their relegation to the wretched refugee camps where they are imprisoned in an enforced state of idleness and subsist on ten cents of UN rations a day. This has resulted in one of the most difficult national conflicts in recent decades with both a Hebrew and an Arab nation competing for the same small territory. The fact that Israel emerged victorious in the first three wars (1948, 1956 and 1967), and thus bears direct responsibility for the tragic plight of the Palestinian Arab refugees, must not blind us to the need to recognize the right of self-determination on both sides as a necessary guarantee against genocide. The struggle for a truly democratic bi-national Palestinian workers state, as part of a socialist federation of the Near East and the product of a united struggle of Hebrew and Arab workers and peasants, cannot simply ignore the national question.

Origins of Zionism

Zionism as a political movement is as much a product of the epoch of imperialism as is its counterpart, fascism. Jews as a “people-class,” to use the expression of the Belgian Trotskyist theorist on the Jewish question, A. Leon, as money lenders and merchants, provided the yeast for the development of capitalism. Those Jews able to transcend the obscurantism of the synagogue and the parsimony of the marketplace were often the leaders of cultural enlightenment. But capitalism in its decline and death agony has no place for the merchant caste of the Middle Ages. Like the proletariat the Jews “were without a country,” and it was partially because they entered the 20th century unshackled by nationalism that Jews played such a leading role in the proletarian movement, especially its left wing.

Only with the world historic defeat of the German proletariat in 1933 was Zionism transformed into a mass movement. Prior to 1933 Zionism was a tiny sect of petty-bourgeois Jewish intellectuals who were emancipated but not assimilated. The Jews of the Eastern European ghettos, if they identified with any political movement at all, were either Communists or members of the Bund, an anti-Zionist Jewish socialist group with Menshevik policies.

At the end of World War I there were 60,000 Jews in Palestine, many of these living in ancient orthodox communities which were hostile to political Zionism, and 644,000 Arabs of whom 574,000 were Moslem and 70,000 Christian. In order to encourage an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire Britain armed and equipped Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, to wage “Holy War” on the Turks. The Levant was carved up in the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty (1916) between Britain, France and tsarist Russia, a treaty which was made public only by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. This treaty gave Lebanon and Syria to France while Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq went to the British.

The Zionists early realized that they could accomplish their aims of creating a Jewish state in the Arab East only under the sponsorship of somebody’s imperialism. Theodor Herzl, the originator of modern Zionism, had first approached the Ottoman Sultan and German Kaiser where he was rebuffed. After the tsarist Minister of Interior Plehve had organized the Black Hundred pogrom of Kishirev in which hundreds of Jews were massacred, Herzl had an audience with Plehve where he offered him the Zionist method of “getting rid of the Jews.” As Nathan Weinstock says in his Le sionisme contre Israel (Paris, 1969): “The Zionist course and anti-Semitic reasoning are symmetrical.”

Indeed, the Zionists finally got a sympathetic ear from that notorious anti-Semite, Lord Chamberlain, who was at the time British Colonial Minister. Chaim Weizmann, the leading British Zionist and the future first president of Israel, had already succinctly stated the Zionist case for the British bourgeoisie in his November 1914 letter to the editor of the Manchester Guardian, C.P. Scott, which stated:

“We can reasonably say that should Palestine fall within the British sphere of influence and should Britain encourage Jewish settlement there, as a British dependency we could have in twenty to thirty years a million Jews out there or more; they would develop the country, bring back civilization to it and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal.”

This argument was not lost on the British branch of the Rothschild banking family, which was the largest holder of Suez bonds and had become also the most prominent contributor to the Zionist financial arm, the Jewish National Fund. Immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian withdrawal from the war the British, both in order to mobilize Jewish support behind the war effort and Zionist support behind Britain’s imperial ambitions in the Arab East, issued on 2 November 1917 the Balfour Declaration which promised a “Jewish national home” in Palestine.

Prior to the smashing of the Ottoman Empire, no Palestinian nation existed as such, at least in the modern sense of a nation. Instead Arab nationalists living in Palestinian towns considered themselves part of Syria and attended the Syrian National Congress of July 1919. On the basis of Wilson’s fourteen points and promises made to the Arabs by both France and Britain this Congress proclaimed political independence for a united Syrian state (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan) which was to be a constitutional monarchy ruled by Hussein’s son, Faisal.

Thus the “promised land” was simultaneously promised to British imperialism, the Jews and the Arabs. The Sykes-Picot treaty was reaffirmed at the San Remo conference and implemented as French troops occupied Damascus chasing away “King” Faisal. The British gave Faisal the throne of Iraq as a consolation prize, severed Transjordan from Palestine and recognized Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, as the Emir of Transjordan.

Zionism and Colonialism

Prior to World War I Jewish colonization in Palestine was by religious communities which were hostile to political Zionism. Later colonization by Jewish entrepreneurs, who wished to colonize Palestine in order to exploit Arab labor in the tradition of the French colonization of Algeria and Tunisia, was sponsored by the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. The PJCA was backed by the Rothschilds, was hostile to political Zionism and soon to come into conflict with the latter.

Zionism was motivated by a sophisticated and even “Marxist” understanding of the “Jewish question,” recognizing Jews as a “people-class” whose economic function as merchants and money lenders had become antiquated. But it sought the solution to the “Jewish question” not from the assimilated Jew, Marx, but from the anti-Semite, Proudhon. The Jew was to be liberated from the stigma of the ghetto through the creation of his own ghetto-state. The transformation of the Jew from money lender and merchant to proletarian and farmer would come about in a racially-exclusionist closed economy.

Zionism went to Palestine under the slogans of “conquest of labor” and “conquest of land,” well knowing that labor and land were to be conquered from the Arabs. As early as June 1895 Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary:

“The private lands in the territories granted us we must gradually take out of the hands of the owners. The poorer amongst the population we try to transfer quietly outside our borders by providing them with work in the transit countries, but in our country we deny them all work. Those with property will join us. The transfer of land and the displacement of the poor must be done gently and carefully. Let the landowners believe they are exploiting us by getting overvalued prices. But no lands shall be sold back to their owners.”
—quoted from Theodor Herzl’s Selected Works in “The Class Nature of Israel” by the Israeli Socialist Organization

This was an accurate prognosis of the next 55 years of Zionism in the Arab East except that the conquest was neither gentle nor peaceful, nor was the bulk of the land which constitutes the modern Israeli state “purchased,” much less at “overvalued prices,” but it was stolen through outright terror, intimidation and military force. Unlike classical colonialism and imperialism which established settler-colonies to exploit native labor, Zionism colonized in order to displace native labor. The effects of the Zionist “conquest of labor” on the indigenous Palestinians were much more vicious and devastating than the role of the British in Rhodesia, the Portuguese in Angola or the French in Algeria, depriving them not only of national independence but, eventually, of any ties to social production whatsoever.

The so-called twin pillars of Zionist “socialism,” the Histadruth and the kibbutz, were the pride of the “left” Zionists, the old Poale Zion, which at one time actually applied to the Comintern for membership, and the Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard). However, these were the institutional embodiments of the reactionary racialist slogans, “conquest of labor” and “conquest of land.” The Histadruth was founded in 1920 as the “General Confederation of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel” by 4,500 of the 5,000 Jewish workers in Palestine. At the time there were ten times as many Arab workers in Palestine but they were excluded from the Histadruth.

In fact, the Histadruth was not even created to defend the Palestinian Jewish proletariat, but to destroy the Palestinian Arab proletariat! Its first activities were the boycott of businesses (both Jewish- and Arab-owned) which hired Arab labor and the physical intimidation of Jews who shopped in the Arab marketplace and Arab workers who worked for Jews.

The kibbutz was originally set up to make the Jewish community agriculturally self-sufficient but increasingly it more closely resembled a U.S. Army fort in the “Wild West” than an agricultural settlement. As pointed out by Amos Perlmutter in his book, Military and Politics in Israel, the kibbutz provided the foundation for Israel’s modern army and the kibbutzniks provided both the elite for the General Staff and the core of the Defense Ministry. The Haganah was originally the defense arm of the kibbutz, a kind of farmers’ militia.

Prior to the 1948 war most of the land occupied by the kibbutz movement followed the dictum of Herzl and was purchased, generally from absentee landlords at “overvalued prices.” The Jewish Agency, the shadow Jewish government set up under British mandate, stated before the Shaw Commission of 1929 that 90 percent of the lands purchased up to that time came from absentee landlords. While some of this land represented heretofore uncultivated desert and swampland, on much of it, especially in the coastal plain near Haifa, thousands of Arab tenants were evicted to make way for Jewish settlements.

On the one hand this created land speculation and inflation leading to the boom/bust of the 1925–27 period, and on the other hand it created a disenfranchised peasantry and lumpenproletariat in the cities. In the absence of a strong proletarian movement, or even a republican bourgeois nationalist movement, these declassed elements were easily incited by Moslem religious leaders like the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem into intercommunal strife against the Jewish communities. Thus the 1929 riots were not between the Palestinian Arab and Hebrew nationalities, but between Moslem and Orthodox Jewish communities. The precipitant to the 1929 riots was a struggle over, of all things, the old “Wailing Wall’’ in Jerusalem.

Zionism and the Workers Movement

Where Arab and Jewish workers were forced to work together as on the docks of the port city of Haifa, intercommunal strife was held to a minimum, and Arab and Jewish workers often crossed racial/religious lines and gave a deaf ear to their respective clericalist-chauvinist “leaderships” in order to engage in common strike action. But the overall impact of Zionism, in collaboration with British imperialism, was to prevent the development of a united Arab-Hebrew working-class movement, but also to retard the development of a Palestinian proletariat or even a Palestinian bourgeoisie.

Arab Palestine was overwhelmingly rural consisting of poor peasantry or fellahin, a rich landlord class or effendis and a tiny middle class. The effendis were more often than not like the Mufti, Haj Amin el Husseini, also religious leaders, and were divided among themselves along family lines. Each family organized its own “political party.” Thus the Mufti organized a “Palestine Arab Party“; another rich prominent effendi clan called the Nashashibis (traditional antagonists of the Husseinis) organized a “National Defense Party,” etc. In pursuance of family vendettas they tried to play off the British and the Zionists, but were usually unsuccessful.

Another obstacle to Arab-Hebrew proletarian unity was the treacherous role of Palestinian Stalinism. In its early years the Palestine Communist Party (PCP) had a modest but real influence among Jewish workers. However, it was unable to build up an organization because it correctly told those Hebrew workers it won over to return to their countries of origin and join the revolutionary movement there. (A significant number of Comintern agents in inter-war Europe were former members of the PCP who had followed this advice. Among them was Leopold Trepper, head of the famous “Red Orchestra” Soviet intelligence network in World War II.) The party from its inception recognized the need to reach the Arab workers and fellahin, but under Stalin’s Comintern “Arabization” came to mean something else. During the 1929 riots the PCP played an essentially correct role, trying to quell the intercommunal strife, putting the blame on the mandate, defending the Jewish quarters and pointing to the situation in Haifa (where the most conscious workers, both Arab and Hebrew, refused to get caught up in the riots) as a model. However the Stalintern denounced the role of the PCP in the 1929 riots and demanded a purge of all party members who did not “accept the view that the August uprising was the result of the radicalization of the masses.”

This was obviously not popular with the Hebrew workers so the PCP began to publish separate propaganda. For the Hebrew workers they stressed Arab-Hebrew class unity, and to the Arab worker the PCP essentially became a more radical mouthpiece of the Mufti. This laid the basis for the later split in the party into its Jewish and Arab components, the former becoming pro-Zionist, the latter pro-Arab nationalist. Such is the logic of Stalinism and nationalism.

Large-Scale Jewish Immigration

Between 1919 and 1931 some 117,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine. But the harsh life, the hostile environment, the racial/religious tensions, the unemployment and economic crisis of the late 1920’s, caused many to leave after a short stay. Between 1924 and 1931, for every 100 immigrants who arrived, 29 departed. By 1931 the Jewish population was 175,000 out of a total population of 1,036,000 or 17.7 percent.

Without Hitler’s victory in 1933 and the subsequent closing of all borders to Jewish immigration—especially those of the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union, where Eastern and Central European Jewry would have been most assimilable—Zionism would never have become a mass movement and the “Jewish National Home” in Palestine would never have become a state. The Jewish Agency which purported to represent all Jews, not just the Jews in Israel, did not lobby for opening the borders of the U.S., Britain and the USSR to Jewish immigration. Quite the opposite, it wanted “its” Jews for colonization to Palestine. And this is not only where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin wanted them, but also Hitler.

Before World War II the Jewish Agency and the Nazis came to a meeting of minds on how Eastern and Central Europe were to “get rid of their Jews.” The most “responsible,” “respected,” “prominent” Zionists are only too willing to brag about their collaboration with the Nazis to “save” a few thousand Jews with enough money and the right connections while millions went to the gas chambers. For example, the leading British Zionist Jon Kimche and his brother David (who joined the Israeli diplomatic corps after “independence“) co-authored a book entitled The Secret Roads: The “Illegal” Migration of a People, 1938–1948 (London, 1954) from which it is worth quoting extensively:

“… the only road to large-scale emigration from Austria led through the Gestapo Headquarters and the S.S. Office for Jewish Affairs for which the sumptuous mansion of Baron Rothschild had been requisitioned. There in charge of the ’Central Bureau for Jewish Emigration’ sat Captain Carol Adolph Eichmann.
“Bar-Gilad [a kibbutz leader] explained that he wanted permission to establish pioneer training camps to train young people for work in Palestine and to arrange for their emigration as quickly as conditions permitted. Bar-Gilad could not know that the man he was talking to was the prime mover behind the plan of ’Jewish emigration for money.’ Eichmann’s Central Bureau was designed originally for this very purpose. It would receive all Jewish applications for permission to leave Greater Germany. For all those who could pay for the services—and his charges were adjusted to the anxiety of his well-to-do Jews—Eichmann would sweep aside bureaucratic formalities and delays and issue passports and visas and provide the passage…. It was a lucrative business for the Gestapo.
“… [Eichmann] supplied the farms and farm equipment. On one occasion he expelled a group of nuns from a convent to provide a training farm for young Jews. By the end of 1938 about a thousand young Jews were training in these Nazi-provided camps.”

The sense of arrogance and Real-politik, the supreme qualities of the Zionist self-image of the “new, tough soldier-Jew” which pervades this book were certainly needed “virtues” for members of a Zionist intelligentsia who were soon to become apologists for “their state” born from the cadavers of six million Jews and from the wretched multitude of one million Arab refugees.

The Second World War

Although the leadership of the 1936–39 Arab revolt was clericalist and middle class, nonetheless it was a genuine expression of the Palestinian democratic aspirations. The three demands raised by the revolt were an end to Jewish immigration, the end of land sales to Jews and self-government. The Zionists had always opposed self-government in Palestine for they realized a genuinely democratic regime would place control of immigration in the hands of the Arab majority. The 1936–39 revolt was primarily launched against the British and not against the Jewish communities. Nonetheless, the Zionists were only too willing to aid the British in order to maintain the protection of the mandate. During this period the Zionists strengthened their economy during the extended Arab unrest. (The revolt started with a middle-class-led shutdown of Arab businesses in protest against Britain’s pro-Jewish policies. This was later followed by guerrilla warfare waged by Arab workers and fellahin.) They also strengthened their army, the Haganah, under the protection of the British in order to collaborate with the British police actions against the Arabs. The Haganah, for example, was assigned by the mandate authorities to guard British pipelines. The strike could not have been broken and the revolt suppressed without the collaboration of the Zionists.

Twenty years of British imperialism in the Near East had, on the eve of World War II, turned many Arab governments pro-Axis. In order to shore up their shaky Arab support the British were quite willing to jilt their faithful Zionist servants. In 1939 they issued another “White Paper” which restricted Jewish immigration to 75,000 for the next five years and thereafter made it conditional on the consent of the Arab majority. Further, the Jews from European displaced persons camps, who had been promised a “haven” in Palestine, were not only surrounded by hostile British forces, pro-Axis Arab governments and coups, but Palestine itself was threatened with German occupation.

At the end of the second imperialist war, Britain, while militarily “victorious,” was in ruins and bled white. A Labour government headed by Atlee was swept into power in the General Elections of 1945, assigned by the British bourgeoisie with the thankless task of trying to put back the pieces of the British Empire with as little dismantling as possible. Although the Labour Party was in the same “International” as the Zionist “socialists” and for 11 past conferences had voted for Jewish statehood, nonetheless Palestine was the British “fallback” position in the Arab East, and Atlee and his Foreign Secretary Bevin were determined to hold on with bulldog determination.

Bevin ordered the commandeering of wretched vessels like the Exodus, 1947 of Zionist moviemaking legend, whose overcrowded “cargo” were the desperate survivors of German concentration camps, and this “cargo” either shipped back to Germany or “stored” in specially prepared concentration camps on Cyprus. At the June 1946 annual Labour Party conference, its first since the electoral victory of the previous year, Bevin had a ready response to the waves of vociferous and self-righteous indignation that swept across the Atlantic from the U.S. The U.S. wanted the Jews in Palestine “because they did not want them in New York.” This was, of course, true but equally hypocritical in the mouth of Bevin, for the Labour government did not want the Jews in London either. At this conference Bevin made it quite clear why he also did not want to admit the remaining 100,000 Jews in displaced persons camps to Palestine: it would cost Britain another army division and 200 million pounds. As Sir John Glubb put it, in his Soldier With the Arabs (London, 1957): “It was a question of how many divisions of troops would have been necessary to fight a three-cornered civil war against Jews and Arabs simultaneously.”

Just as the U.S. rushed in to replace the crumbling empires of the British and French in Asia and the Arab East, so the center of imperialist patronage for Zionism switched from London to Washington. Truman became the champion of the “100,000” not only because he did not want them in New York, but because he knew that Britain could indeed not afford another army division and 200 million pounds for Palestine. It could not even afford having one fifth of its army and the 35 million pounds it required to hold on to Palestine after World War II.

The U.S. wanted to get into the Arab East fast. It was afraid that the USSR was about to pull off another Czechoslovakia in Persia. Furthermore, the British had joined Chaim Weizmann at the White House welfare line, and the U.S. was able to apply enormous economic pressure to England. By the beginning of 1947 the Atlee government had decided to wash its hands of Palestine and turned the question over to the UN. Stalin, motivated more by irrational Anglophobia than narrow conservative bureaucratic Realpolitik, lined up with Truman and co-sponsored the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. (The price of Thermidor is that the personal whim of The Leader may sometimes be even contrary to the interests of the bureaucratic caste he represents.) Thus Stalin, who in 1929 purged and denounced the Palestinian Communist Party for not supporting the Arab pogroms and in 1936 made the PCP line up behind the Mufti, in 1947–48 was the most vigorous ally of Zionism. Marshall Plan bribery combined with Stalinist betrayal led to the UN partition resolution passed on 29 November 1947. Britain then agreed to end the Mandate by the coming May 14.

Part 2: The 1948 War

[Editor’s note: The first part of this article was printed in WV No. 33, 22 November 1973. In the ensuing period the Spartacist League has undertaken internal discussion on the national question as it applies to interpenetrated peoples generally and the Near East in particular. In the course of this discussion we have reviewed our earlier position on the 1948 Arab-Israel war, which is found in Spartacist No.11, March-April 1968.]

The establishment of the Zionist state of Israel was one of the consequences of the dissolution of the British Empire following World War II. Six years of imperialist war in Europe and the Far East had drained the resources of the leading colonial power to the point of bankruptcy, engendering mounting social crisis in England and setting the colonies aflame with independence struggles.

The British working class demonstrated its “gratitude” for Winston Churchill’s “victory” over German imperialism by sweeping him out of office in the 1945 elections. After a generation in opposition the Labour Party, with Clement Attlee as Prime Minister and Ernest Bevin (a right-winger within the party) as Foreign Secretary, crossed over to the government benches on July 17. Bevin soon made clear the new government’s intention to fully enforce the 1939 “White Paper” on Palestine, which restricted Jewish immigration. Detention camps were established in Cyprus for captured illegal immigrants and additional British troops were dispatched to police the Palestine Mandate area.

Battle Over Immigration

During World War II the Haganah, armed wing of the Jewish Agency, and the Irgun, a rightist Zionist commando group, made a truce with the British. The so-called Stern Gang, which had a reputation as fascists within the Zionist spectrum, split with the Irgun over the truce and continued guerrilla operations throughout the war.

With the end of World War II and Bevin’s moves to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Haganah and Irgun resumed commando operations. In October 1945 they cut the Palestine railway system in 153 places, totally disrupting traffic. On 20 February 1946 a coordinated attack by the Zionist armed forces hit the Mount Carmel radar station, three RAF airfields (destroying 15 planes) and a multitude of police posts. On June 16, the Haganah elite force, the Palmach, knocked out all bridges and rail lines that crossed the Palestine border. The British responded by occupying Jewish Agency offices and conducting mass arrests. The Zionists, in turn, retaliated by blowing up British military headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on July 22, killing 80 English, Arabs and Jews.

As the struggle between the Zionists and the British dragged out during the next two years, the Mandate government ordered mass dragnets and arrests, cordoning off whole cities and placing thousands of suspects in detention camps in Palestine. Additional thousands of “illegal immigrants” were confined in the Cyprus camps. The main conflict centered on this question of immigration from Europe.

The prospective Jewish immigrants were hardly the typical picture of fat, arrogant, imperialist-bribed colonialists bred on Kipling’s “white man’s burden.” Rather, they were the wretched survivors of the Nazi occupation who were “liberated” by the Allies only to have their concentration camps converted into “displaced persons” camps. At the end of World War II, these camps in West Germany held over 100,000 Jews; but the outbreak of pogroms in Poland and the Balkans during the summer of 1946 swelled the numbers in these camps to a quarter million.

In the United States, the Socialist Workers Party (the Trotskyist Party at that time) campaigned to force the government to drop its racist immigration quota system, which discriminated against Eastern Europeans, in order to permit Jews into the U.S. However, as many scholars have pointed out, “Zionists preferred to see Jewish refugees go to Palestine…” (David Brody, “American Jewry, Refugees and Immigration Restriction,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, June 1956). Far from opposing the discriminatory immigration quotas, Rabbi Wise (a leading Zionist) had testified in 1939 congressional hearings, “I have heard no sane person propose any departure or deviation from existing laws now in force” (ibid.)! The reasons were obvious: if hundreds of thousands of European Jews came to America, then hopes for a Jewish Palestine would be shattered.

U.S. Imperialism Replaces Britain

Shortly after World War II there was a sharp recession, especially acute in England, which bottomed at the beginning of 1947. Domestic social/economic crisis suddenly awakened the Labour government to the fact that it could no longer afford to police the British Empire. In the Mandate area England had some 80,000 regular troops and 16,000 policemen, along with the British-trained, British-officered and British-equipped Transjordanian Arab Legion, all of which represented a considerable drain on the budget.

In rapid succession the government announced on January 28 that Britain was leaving Burma, on February 18 that the Palestinian question would be submitted to the UN and on February 20 that His Majesty’s troops would pull out of India no later than June 1948. The next day the British ambassador to the U.S. informed Secretary of State Marshall that England could not continue to supply military aid to Greece.

At the time, U.S. corporations owned 47 percent of the oil in the Near East. The oil companies were solicitous of Arab “good will” and hence hostile to the aspirations of the Zionists. Secretary of Defense Forrestal went on a nationwide campaign to whip up an “energy crisis” scare in order to build a lobby against partition. The State Department had a large component of Near East “experts” who were pro-Arab and, moreover, had the ear of Marshall.

Why, then, did the U.S. support partition? The international Zionist lobby was strident; but it was certainly not strong enough to get Truman to support a policy counterposed to U.S. imperialist interests in the region. Truman’s desire for the “Jewish vote” in the 1948 elections no doubt played a role as well, though it also was not decisive. He certainly can have felt no sympathy for the thousands of “displaced persons” in Europe or else he would have opened U.S. borders to them.

Stalin evidently supported partition at this point in the conviction that it would further disintegrate the British presence in the Near East. But while the U.S. was moving in to replace the British, it is doubtful that Truman wished to step up the pace (considering the unrest in France and Italy, not to mention nearby Greece). The main interest of U.S. imperialism in the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine was, rather, as a contributing force to balkanizing the Near East and as a lightning rod to deflect the aroused national and class aspirations of the Arab fellahin and proletariat.


When the UN passed the partition resolution on 29 November 1947 there were some 600,000 Jews and 1.2 million Arabs in Palestine. Contrary to the story-book propaganda image of hardy Zionist pioneers hoeing the land on isolated kibbutzim, in fact over half the Jewish population was concentrated in three large cities: 150,000 in Tel Aviv, 100,000 in New Jerusalem and 80,000 in Haifa.

These cities and others were either “mixed” (such as Haifa, which had 70,000 Arab residents) or were adjacent to Arab cities (such as the 70,000 Arabs living next door to Tel Aviv in Jaffa). The proposed “Jewish state” had every major city, including the port cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv and the Arab city of Jaffa, except for Jerusalem which was “internationalized.” Further, the Zionist state would include the best citrus lands (and was expected to pay the Arab state 4 million pounds yearly in consequence).

At the time partition was announced, the Jews owned only 6 percent of the land in Palestine; under the UN-approved plan they were to get 55 percent of the total area. The Zionist state would encompass 538,000 Jews and 397,000 Arabs, while the Arab state included some 804,000 Arabs and only 10,000 Jews. No wonder the Zionists rejoiced over partition while the Palestinian Arabs cursed it.

Inter-Communal Conflict

Immediately following the UN partition vote inter-communal strife intensified sharply. In “mixed” cities sniping went on around the clock. Between cities, supply convoys were regularly ambushed. 50 Jews and 50 Arabs a week died from this irregular warfare. The Grand Mufti called (from Damascus) for a general strike after the announcement of the UN resolution. But it was totally ineffective as the Zionists lived behind the walled fortress of their closed economy. The Mufti also called upon his “Home Guard,” nominally 50,000 strong, to rise up in arms. But the only arms they possessed were ancient firearms of dubious usefulness, and much of their time was taken up by shootouts with other “Guards” who supported effendis antagonistic to the Mufti.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the inter-communal fighting which followed on the heels of the UN partition vote was that it spread even to the few areas, like the Haifa docks and oil refineries, where there had been a long tradition of common Arab and Jewish class struggle. Christmas was “celebrated” in Palestine in 1947 with an orgy of bomb throwing, sniping and ambushes, especially in Haifa and the “no-man’s land” between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, resulting in more than 100 deaths. On December 30, members of the Irgun threw bombs from a passing vehicle into a group of Arab workers standing at the gates of a Haifa oil refinery, killing 6 and wounding 47. Arab workers in the plant then attacked Jewish workers with knives and pickaxes, killing 41 and wounding 15.

Enter the Arab League

The British-sponsored Arab League met in Cairo from December 12 to 17. While each member state truculently denounced the Zionists and championed the cause of the Palestinians and Arab unity, nonetheless each was interested only in how much of Palestine It might carve out for itself—and in preventing its fellow members from carving out too much.

The meeting was called at the initiative of the Iraqi prime minister Salah Jabr, who was the most radical in his rhetoric and proposals, calling for immediate armed intervention. Jabr knew he was sitting on a volcano of social unrest at home and needed the diversion a “Holy War” against Zionism would bring. But he was too late. Following the publication of a new defense treaty with Britain on January 16, huge student demonstrations broke out, followed by workers and unemployed taking to the streets. Consequently, throughout the 1948 Arab-Israel war most of the Iraqi army was tied up in keeping order in Baghdad.

King Abdullah of Transjordan was the sole surviving son of the sherif of Mecca and dreamed of undoing the historic injustice done to his side of the royal family in the Versailles Treaty. As a first step to reestablishing a Greater Syria under Hashemite rule he was intent on capturing the part of Palestine allotted to the Arabs, especially Jerusalem, the third ranking “Holy City” of Islam and a suitable site for his throne. Syria, too, may have dreamed of a reborn Greater Syria, yet it had but one poorly equipped division while Abdullah had the crack Arab Legion.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem quite naturally wanted no regular armies to intervene, especially Abdullah’s, for the Hashemite kingdom could only be built at the Mufti’s expense. Instead he wanted equipment for his irregulars. It was finally decided to train and equip some 3,000 volunteers, the “Arab Liberation Army,” under Fawzi el-Kaukji, a veteran of the guerrilla fighting following the 1936 general strike in Palestine and of the pro-Axis military coup in Iraq in 1941.

Such byzantine negotiations could naturally not ignore the Zionists. In November 1947, prior to the Cairo meeting of the Arab League, Abdullah had already had a secret meeting with Golda Meyerson (Meir) representing the Jewish Agency, in which he confided to her his plans for occupying those parts of Palestine designated for the Arabs, because “we both have a common enemy who will obstruct our plans—the Mufti.” Likewise, in January 1948 Kaukji met with a Jewish Agency representative at his headquarters in central Palestine and promised neither to attack the Jews nor to come to the aid of the pro-Mufti Palestinian irregulars. While he broke the former part of his promise, attacking several settlements in the Galilee, he scrupulously kept the second part.

Flight of the Palestinian Arabs

While the period of December 1947 to March 1948 was largely marked by inter-communal strife and diplomatic negotiating between the Arab states, the dominant aspect of April and early May was a concerted drive by the Zionists to secure their lines of communication and, subsequently, to drive out the Arabs from areas allotted to the Jews under partition. That the Zionists intended at the beginning to carry out such a mass expulsion is doubtful, but they certainly took advantage of the panic which set in among the Arab population.

On April 9 the Irgun launched its notorious massacre at Deir Yassin, killing 254 Arabs, most of them unarmed. The remaining 150 villagers were dumped into trucks and paraded through Jewish sections of Jerusalem. While the Jewish Agency expressed its “disgust” at Deir Yassin in a cable to King Abdullah, nonetheless this atrocity was exploited by the Jewish Agency and the Haganah to induce terror and flight.

In Haifa on April 22 the Haganah launched a large-scale assault which overran important government buildings and occupied key sections of the Arab quarters. The Haganah demanded that Arabs turn over all arms, that all non-Palestinians (Syrians, Iraqis, etc.) be handed over for trial and detention, and recognition of Jewish control over the entire city. Instead of submitting to these onerous terms, the Arab population evacuated the city. Three days later the Irgun launched a well-armed attack on the Arab city of Jaffa. While the Jewish Agency disclaimed responsibility for this attack, when the Irgun disintegrated and its advance was stopped, the Haganah came to its rescue and 70,000 Arabs had to flee.

Thus, even before the proclamation of the Zionist state, the Palestinian “refugee problem” had been created. More than 300,000 Arabs had fled to exile as a result of Zionist terror, inadequate or non-existent Palestinian leadership and (in some places) exhortations by the “Arab Liberation Army” to clear battle areas around the “mixed cities.”

Proclamation of Israel and the Arab Armies’ Invasion

As the last British troops embarked on May 14 the State of Israel was proclaimed by the Jewish Agency leaders. The next day the armies of five Arab states crossed the borders into former Mandate Palestine. It is important to have a clear picture of the military situation at this point in order to judge whether the ensuing struggle was, as the Zionists (and Stalin) claimed, a war of national liberation or, on the contrary, a war of national expansion on the part of Israel.

In the first place, British troops were no longer a factor. This meant that, except in the north around Galilee, the only effective military forces in the former Mandate area were those of the Zionists. The Arab Legion, the main opponent of the Haganah in the early fighting, had to cross the Jordan River and travel some 80-90 miles before making contact with the Zionist forces around Jerusalem. Thus much of the action in the early days of the 1948 war consisted of the Haganah expanding the area of its control, filling the vacuum created by the departure of the British.

Secondly, the balance of military forces was roughly even. As of May 15 the Haganah had mobilized approximately 25,000 regulars, who faced 10,000 Egyptians, 4,500 Arab Legionnaires, 7,000 Syrians, 3,000 Iraqis and 3,000 Lebanese, for a total of 27,500 on the Arab side. The Arab armies were initially better equipped, but the Zionists had the advantage of short lines of communications and tight defense lines in a country the size of Vermont.

Most important of all, however, the Zionist command was (more or less) unified while each Arab army pursued an independent and often contradictory policy. The final Arab invasion plans had designated Iraqi general Nur ad-Din Mahmoud as “Commander of the Regular and Irregular Forces for the Saving of Palestine.” He was supposed to lead a coordinated pincer attack in the north combined with blocking maneuvers in the south, with the objective of capturing Haifa. However, on May 13 Abdullah informed the other members of the Arab League that he was to be supreme commander himself and was not interested in Haifa but Jerusalem. Consequently all plans were changed, throwing the Arab armies into chaos, and a superior military strategy was scotched in favor of one that had as its highest objective making Abdullah King of Jerusalem. As he had repeatedly told the Zionists, Abdullah had no interest in occupying the Jewish districts; not once during the war did he attempt to do so.

The actual fighting during the first four weeks of the war (May 15 to June 11) centered on lines of communication with Jerusalem. Because of Zionist military effectiveness, the lack of coordination of the Arab armies and the main Arab contender’s exclusive interest in occupying the non-Jewish areas, the physical existence of the Jewish community in Palestine was never in question during the course of the fighting.

After four weeks of fighting the Arab Legion held Latrun, a strategic point blocking the main road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; however, the Haganah had managed to bypass the area by building a new road. General Glubb’s Legionnaires had also taken Sheikh Jarrah, a village whose only importance was that it was midway between New Jerusalem and Mt. Scopus. And they had occupied the “Old City” of Jerusalem whose significance was purely religious and symbolic. The Iraqi army took Jenin, from where they did not budge for the rest of the war. The Egyptians took three settlements in the Negev. Militarily, the first round was a stand-off.

The UN-imposed four-week truce lasted from June 11 to July 9 and was used by both sides to resupply their forces. The Arab states expanded their troop commitments by 15,000 men. But it was the Zionists who benefited most from the lull. Reflecting Russian policy, which considered the Israeli struggle a progressive anti-imperialist war of national liberation, Czechoslovakia delivered substantial numbers of arms and an entire airfield. From the U.S. and England the Zionists obtained bombers and fighters. By the end of the truce period Israel had achieved clear military advantage, and in the ensuing “Ten Day Offensive” it proceeded to maul Kaukji’s Arab Liberation Army in the Galilee and capture Ramleh, Lydda and adjacent Arab villages in central Palestine. Wherever the Haganah advanced into Arab territory the civilian population was expelled and their homes and villages bulldozed and blown up. By the end of October more than 472,000 Arabs had been driven off their land and into exile.

After a second truce which lasted from July 18 to October, the Zionists concentrated on wiping out the Egyptian positions in the Negev and mopping up the Galilee. At the end of the fighting in early 1949 they had occupied all the territory allotted to the Jews under the UN partition plan and, in addition, had taken the eastern Galilee, parts of central Palestine (including the new city of Jerusalem) and parts of the Negev. Egypt took the Gaza strip and Transjordan got the West Bank. Abdullah, despite some battlefield reverses, now fulfilled his lifelong dream and crowned himself King of (a part of) Jerusalem and the (partially) restored Hashemite Kingdom. Not to be outdone, Egypt set up an “Arab Government of Palestine” in the Gaza strip.

Hebrew Nation in Palestine?

The 1948 war established the framework in which the subsequent Arab-Israeli conflicts occurred. For this reason alone it requires careful study by revolutionary socialists. In addition to the obvious question of what position should be taken by Marxists in this conflict, it raises a number of other important political issues: Were the Jews in Palestine a nation? If so, do Leninists support their right to self-determination? Was the 1948 war an application of this right? And, more generally, what is the significance of self-determination for interpenetrated peoples?

Certainly by 1948 the Jewish-Zionist communities of Palestine had achieved one of their goals, having constituted a distinct national entity. (The point at which this occurred can be placed at the defeat of the 1936-39 Arab general strike and uprising, after which the Palestinian Jews had a functioning closed economy, essentially independent of the Arab communities. This separation laid the basis for the development of the Jewish economy during the second World War, when the isolation of Palestine compelled the development of entire new industries.) We say this as recognition of an accomplished fact, not implying “approval” of any kind.

Lenin and Trotsky resolutely opposed the bourgeois ideology of Zionism and opposed Jewish settlement in Palestine. But a nation is not a metaphysical moral category; it is a social category with a material content. Stalin’s pamphlet, Marxism and the National Question, written in 1913 when he was still a Bolshevik and under Lenin’s guidance, defines a nation in the following terms: “A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture” [emphasis in original]. This definition explicitly denied that European Jews constituted a nation. They were considered by Stalin and Lenin to be either assimilated (as in Western Europe) or an oppressed caste (as in Russia and Eastern Europe generally). The Zionists also understood that for dispersed European Jewry, a “people without land,” the formation of a nation was impossible without finding a corresponding “land without people“—or one that could be turned into a land without people through forced expulsion of the native inhabitants. This is what they proceeded to do in Palestine, first pushing the Arab fellahin off the land (bought from the feudal landowners), then constructing a closed economy of the Jewish communities and, finally, in 1948 proceeding to conquer the greater part of Mandate Palestine with an army organized prior to Partition, and to expel the majority of its Arab population.

Out of the destruction of European Jewry by Hitler (without whose aid the Zionists would have gone the way of the Shakers and other utopian sects) and at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs, a settler colony was transformed into a nation.

Self-Determination for the Hebrew Nation?

This Hebrew nation came into existence through force and violence, through the suppression, forced expulsion and genocide of other peoples. Communists must oppose this brutal national oppression. Yet once this historical fact is accomplished, we must certainly recognize that nation’s right to self-determination, unless we prefer the alternative, namely national genocide.

The United States itself (as well as good parts of Spanish colonial America) was created through the most brutal, and ultimately genocidal, despoliation of the native Indian population. The wiping out of the aboriginal population was almost total in Uruguay, Costa Rica and Cuba, for example. Should Marxists therefore deny the U.S.’ right to self-determination, for instance during the war of independence in 1776? Do we deny this right to the Spanish-derived inhabitants of Latin America? Are we to deny Iraq’s right to self-determination because it suppresses the Kurds; do we deny this democratic right to Nigeria because of the massacre of the Biafrans, or to the Sudan because the Arab north has wiped out hundreds of thousands of blacks in the south? Do we deny the right of self-determination to modern Turkey because it was forged over the corpses of one million Armenians and Greeks? The oppression and massacre of these subjugated peoples were great historic injustices, but this does not transform irredentism into Leninism. Rather, it underlines the necessity to view the national question within the internationalist framework of the proletariat recognizing that nationalism—the petty-bourgeois ideology which covers the expansionist and genocidal appetites of the bourgeoisie—is incapable of achieving social justice even on the terrain of bourgeois-democratic national rights.

The ex-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party now denies the right of self-determination to the Hebrew-speaking people of Israel, arguing: “From the point of view of the Leninist concept of the right of nations to self-determination, the key fact is whether the given nationality is an oppressed nationality or an oppressor nationality” (Israel and the Arab Revolution,” 1971 SWP convention resolution). It is one thing to distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressors (which is wholly reactionary) and the nationalism of the oppressed (which, although it too is a bourgeois ideology that must be combatted by socialists, is in part an expression of opposition to oppression). But Marxists do not pretend to sit with the gods on high, majestically rewarding the good but oppressed peoples with the right of self-determination and dispersing to the four corners of the world the bad oppressor peoples.

The SWP claims that Leninism recognizes only the claims of oppressed nations to the right of self-determination. This would have been news to Lenin! In his article, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (December 1914) he approvingly quotes the resolution on the national question from the 1896 (London) congress of the Socialist (Second) International: “This Congress declares that it stands for the full right of all nations to self determination…” To underline the point, Lenin goes on to remark: “The International’s resolution reproduces the most essential and fundamental propositions in this point of view: on the one hand, the absolutely direct, unequivocal recognition of the full right of all nations to self-determination; on the other hand, the equally unambiguous appeal to the workers for international unity in their class struggle. We think that this resolution is absolutely correct….” [emphasis in original]

Under normal circumstances the self-determination of oppressor nations is of course not in question. The demand for self-determination for oppressed peoples means that they should have the same national rights already achieved by the already established nations, not that oppressed peoples are entitled to national rights while “oppressor peoples” are not.

By granting the right of self determination to all nations, this does not mean Marxists support the exercise of that right under all conditions. (Lenin compared self-determination to divorce; by recognizing the right to divorce one does not necessarily advocate dissolution of a particular marriage.) Further, when democratic rights come into conflict, it is necessary to subordinate the particular to the general. This was recognized by the then-Trotskyist SWP in 1948 in its editorial on “The Arab-Jewish War in Palestine” (Militant, 31 May 1948): “Haven’t the Jewish people the right to self-determination and statehood as other peoples? Yes—but even if we abstract this question from its aforementioned social reality, the fact remains that they cannot carve out a state at the expense of the national rights of the Arab peoples. This is not self-determination, but conquest of another people’s territory.” The SWP vigorously opposed the UN Partition scheme and called for “a joint struggle against the imperialist oppressors on the basis of a revolutionary socialist program.“

Self-Determination for Interpenetrated Peoples?

The SWP was, however, vague in its propaganda at the time, and tended to be unable to reduce its correct sentiments to a line on the war. This was not an accident, but flowed out of the complexity of the situation, the scarcity of hard information on the war itself (the bourgeois press’ coverage being largely confined to hysterical propaganda about the plight of the poor beleaguered Jews) and the theoretical dilemma posed by attempting to apply the right of self-determination to interpenetrated peoples.

It was clear that the establishment of an independent nation-state, either by Palestinian Arabs or the Jews, would occur in Palestine only at the expense of the other nation. When national populations are geographically interpenetrated, as they were in Palestine, an independent nation-state can be created only by their forcible separation (forced population transfers, etc.). Thus the democratic right of self-determination becomes abstract, as it can be exercised only by the stronger national grouping driving out or destroying the weaker one.

In such cases the only possibility of a democratic solution lies in a social transformation. For example, the decomposition of the old multi-national Turkish empire precipitated a period of intensified murderous national conflict in the Balkans. The centuries of national hatreds and massacres between for example the Serbian and Croatian peoples exceeded the history of national strife between the Hebrews and Arabs in the Near East. The only basis for the unity of the Serbs and Croats (and other peoples) of Yugoslavia was the triumph of the partisan armies, against all of the nationalists, following World War II in a struggle which broke the bounds of capitalism and resulted in the creation of a deformed workers state in Yugoslavia.

Under capitalism, the right to self-determination in such a context is strictly negative: that is, against the abuses of national rights of either the Arabs or the Hebrew-speaking population. Thus, had there been an independent armed force of the Palestinian Arabs in the 1948 war, Marxists could have given it military support in the struggle against the expansion of the exclusionist Zionist state and the onslaught of the Arab League armies, which together suppressed the national existence of the Palestinian Arabs. Likewise, had there been an irredentist onslaught of the Arab states which threatened the survival of the Hebrew nation in Palestine, Marxists would have taken a position of revolutionary defensism of the survival of that nation.

Until recently the Spartacist League has held that the intervention of the Arab Legion following Israel’s proclamation of independence transformed the 1948 war into a struggle to defend the survival of the Hebrew people and its right to self-determination. While opposing partition and fighting for the return of the expelled Palestinians, nonetheless we would have called for victory of the Haganah over the Arab Legion.

The criteria by which we judge such a war have not changed. However, additional revelation of the circumstances surrounding the 1948 war through new factual material, much of which became available only recently, makes it quite clear that at no point in the 1948 war were the Arab armies in a position to challenge the survival of the Hebrew nation. In particular we call the readers’ attention to the article by Y. Rad, “On the First Arab-Israeli War,” in WV No. 35, 4 January 1974.

In light of this and other material, the SL Central Committee on 16 March adopted the following motion:

“The correct Trotskyist policy toward the 1948 Palestinian War was one of revolutionary defeatism (and exercise of self-defense by specific villages and settlements when under attack) because:
“1) the democratic issue of self-determination for each of two nationalities or peoples who geographically interpenetrate can only conceivably be resolved equitably within the framework of the proletariat in power;
“2) concretely in 1948—the Zionist-led Jews possessed the social/military organization to achieve and expand their own nation state. The Palestine Arabs were disorganized, ineffectual and betrayed on all sides. With the exception of the battle for Jerusalem, the Transjordan (and British-inspired and backed) war aims were to compete with the Jews for the partitioning of Palestinian Arabs’ lands. The role of other foreign Arab armies was essentially to posture, seeking to deflect discontent within their own states.”

In 1948 the Revolutionary Communist League, Palestinian section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, while recognizing the right of the Jews to self-determination, resolutely opposed partition and took a revolutionary defeatist position in the Arab-Zionist war. “This war can on neither side be said to bear a progressive character…. It weakens the proletariat and strengthens imperialism in both camps. The only way to peace between the two peoples of this country is turning the guns against the instigators of murder in both camps” [emphasis in original] (“Against the Stream,” reprinted in Fourth International, May 1948). Clearly, a re-examination of the historical evidence confirms the position held by the Trotskyists at that time—that the survival of the Hebrew nation was not in question. There were no effective forces fighting for the rights of the Palestinian Arab nation; none of the Arab forces fought for the national rights of the Palestinians or against imperialism, but rather against the Zionists and each other in order to carve up the Palestinian Arab nation among themselves and/or divert social struggle at home.

While the imperialist power certainly had an interest in and intervened to shape the outcome of the conflict, it is not possible to consider the struggle on either side as anti-imperialist. Thus the Israelis were aided by the U.S. and the USSR (diplomatically and, at least indirectly, militarily) while the Egyptians, Iraqis and Jordanians all received British military aid. (On the other hand, not only the Israelis but each of the Arab countries involved was assiduously pursuing its own national aims, so that it is likewise impossible to reduce the war to a simple great power conflict.)

Marxists could give military support to neither side in the 1948 Palestine war. Our position for proletarian internationalism requires viewing that war from the necessity of revolutionary defeatism on both sides, counterposing to the victory of either side the perspective of united proletarian struggle, which offers the only possibility for the genuine fulfilment of the right of self-determination—through a socialist federation of the Near East.