by Ellen Isaacs
March 22, 2023
“Palestinians don’t exist.” (https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/03/paris-israels-smotrich-says-palestinian-people-dont-exist-calls-them-fictitious) This was the recent statement by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich that made shocked headlines around the world. And, of course, he meant it as an affirmation of Jewish nationalism, the right of Israeli Jews to dispose of all Palestinians from the Jordan to the Sea. Sounds kind of like the Nazis, no?
But in a perverted way he was right (forgive me, read on). People exist, all people exist, but there are huge divisions between us. In this universally capitalist world, the divisions that truly describe our station in life and the power to control our lives depend not on our ethnicity but on our class, workers versus bosses and their henchmen. Workers exist in every nation, as do capitalist power holders, and in every nation workers are exploited for their labor and used as soldiers to fight the workers of other nations as capitalists compete for wealth and resources. The alternative is for workers of all nations to recognize our commonality, unite and build a new worldwide society, based on our own interests. In that world there will be no nations, no racism, no sexism, and no exploitation for profit. International workers exist!
Let’s go back a little in history. Modern nationalism established itself in the 19th century as the nation-states of the West were consolidated and the age of imperialism and colonialism began. The Ottoman Empire, ruled by Turkey from the 1400s, encompassed the Balkans and part of Eastern Europe and the lands which are now Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and Syria. As Britain and France grew into the most powerful imperialist nations with widespread empires, they became increasingly interested in the Middle East. Britain wanted to protect its trade routes to India and Egypt, where they controlled important manufacturing; France wanted to control the expansion of British imperialism and thus set up missions in Syria and Lebanon.
Zionism also took hold at this time as a response to European anti-Semitism and Jews chose Palestine as a refuge, a place they declared to be empty of people. The British saw the Zionist project as a way to create a foothold in the area by supporting a group of settlers with Western values. As the massive inter-imperialist struggle of World War I pitted Britain, France and Russia against Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire, the use of oil as military fuel triggered even greater interest in the Middle East. The British created allies in the region by promising independent nationhood to various Arab leaders. Ultimately, in 1916 the British and French signed the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between them, and the Balfour Declaration, which promised Palestine to the Jews.
After the war, with the blessing of the new League of Nations, France and Britain invented the new nations of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. France controlled Syria and Lebanon and Britain the rest. They appointed new rulers from among local potentates and elevated local elites while maintaining ultimate military control. Meanwhile, they set about creating distinct national cultures and loyalties as mechanisms to divide and conquer. Local museums with artifacts, new maps and myths and local ethnic dress were developed. Various religious groups were also encouraged to maintain their differences and separation throughout the various nations. Although there were strong communist parties throughout the region, they followed the Soviet policy of the time to encourage nationalism, which helped solidify the separate bourgeoisie- dominated new nations
Meanwhile, as Jewish emigration to Palestine grew in the 1920s and 30s and then again after the rise of the Nazis, Zionist leaders adopted a policy of exclusion of Palestinians, and wealthy European businessmen supported their efforts. Nonetheless, in the 1920s, as described by Ilan Pappe, Palestinians, Arabs from Syria and Egypt, and Jews together formed the first trade union in Palestine for railway and postal workers. It took ten years for the nationalist rulers on both sides to win workers into separate nationalist unions. Separate living spaces, schools and political bodies were also established, setting up the basis for declaring the Israeli state.
US involvement in the Middle East also grew with the increased use and discovery of oil in the 1920-30s, and American companies made drilling contracts with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Britain and France were increasingly seen as US rivals, along with the Soviet Union, and as the US emerged the least scathed after WWII, it increased aid to Saudi Arabia and Iran and encouraged the independence of Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.
In 1948, when the UN, with US and British support, declared the State of Israel, 55% of the land was given to the Jews even though they comprised only 30% of the population. Over 700,000 Palestinians fled to what is now the Occupied Territories or neighboring countries as over 500 villages were destroyed and untold numbers murdered. However, the wealthiest landowning Palestinians had a lot of money in foreign banks and ties to local ruling classes such as in Kuwait and Qatar. They used this wealth to consolidate themselves as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which cooperated with the nationalist, capitalist rulers of other states in the region.
As Egypt’s Nasser asserted his independence in the 1960s, The US became more dependent on Saudi Arabia to defend its interests and began arming Israel and Iran as well. When US influence in Iran ended with the fall of the Shah in 1979, Israel became an even more important asset to maintain US regional power and access to oil and pipelines. No matter how repressive the Israelis became toward the Palestinians, the US continued its military support to the tune of over $3 billion a year. Even the new Netanyahu government with its ever more openly fascist policies has not moved the US to object.
Who Supports the Palestinians?
The massive demonstrations against the latest fascist measures in Israel don’t even mention the illegal military occupation of Palestine since 1967 or the oppression of Palestinian citizens within Israel. Palestinians are resisting a bit more, but mostly with individual or small group acts of violence, although it is Israel that is doing most of the killing, over 80 Palestinians so far this year. The Palestinian Authority has not ceased cooperating with Israel nor have wealthy Palestinian businessmen cut their ties with their Israeli cohorts. All this reflects the fact that Palestinian society itself remains a capitalist class society just as it was set up after partition. The differences in wealth between the ruling Palestinians and ordinary workers and farmers are just as great as in the US or in Israel, near the greatest in the world. Even if a Palestinian state were to be formed, which is not going to happen, these disparities would continue to exist. Even if one multiethnic state were to be formed, which is also not going to happen, if it were a capitalist state with the same economic structure, these disparities would continue to exist.
So the point is, our slogans need to be modified. Workers exist around the world!! Palestinian and Jewish workers unite! Workers of the world unite! Let’s get rid of all capitalists – American, Arab, Jewish, Brazilian – whatever – everywhere. Let’s recall that nationalism was invented by bosses, carefully, methodically, to divide and conquer us, within the imperialist nations and within the weaker nations they control. It may be a far off goal, uniting us all, but it is ever more crucial to define our struggles as the world hurtles toward ever more deadly inter-imperialist war and climate disaster brought on by hunger for profits. It will indeed take a massive unified struggle to win. Meanwhile, let us support each other’s struggles across national lines, but based on class, not nationality.
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For background reading and many references, see:
The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe
The Battle for Justice in Palestine, by Ali Abunimah
The Communist, Fall, 2007 at plp.org, under Literature, Magazines, Complete Issues