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What is the Progressive Case for Israel?

By David Hirsh

This piece was written by David Hirsh for a collection published by Labour Friends of Israel and reprinted here with permission.

What is the progressive case for Israel? Why should a nation state need somebody to make its case? What is the progressive case for France or for Poland? Before the French Revolution, the question of France was still open. Was Marseille to be part of the same Republic as Brittany? When there was a political movement for the foundation of France, then there was a case for and also a case against France. When Poland was half engulfed by the Soviet Union and half by the Third Reich, there was a progressive case for Poland. But today, thankfully, Poland exists. It doesn’t need a ‘case’.

There are reasons to be ambivalent about nationalism. Nationalist movements have often stood up against forces which threaten human freedom. Nationalism offers us a way of visualising ourselves as part of a community in which we look after each other. But being part of something also means defining others as not being part of it, as being excluded from it. The left should fight for freedom with the nationalists but we should also remember the dangers of nationalism. Like John Lennon, we should imagine a world where people no longer feel the need to protect themselves against external threat, but until it exists, it is wise for communities to retain the possibility of self-defence.

Progressives in France or Poland might hope to dissolve their states into the European Union, or into a global community. In that sense there is still a possible case to be made for Poland or for France. But nobody thinks that either has to justify their existences to anybody outside. Not even Germany after the crimes of the Second World War had to justify its existence.

In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, radical Jews were split as to how they should oppose the antisemitism. Some wanted to dissolve all religious and national characteristics into a universalistic socialism where everybody would treat each other with respect and where the distinction between Jew and non-Jew would eventually be forgotten. Others wanted Jews to organise themselves into culturally and politically Jewish Bunds which would defend them from antisemitism and which would construct Jewish identity in new, egalitarian and empowering ways. A third current thought that national self-determination was the key to guaranteeing people’s individual rights, and they wanted Jews from all different places to forge themselves into a sovereign nation. This last group, the Zionists, made a progressive case for Israel while the other two, the Socialists and the Bundists, made progressive cases against Israel.

In the 1940s the overwhelming majority of the Jewish Socialists, Bundists and Zionists were systematically murdered, alongside Jews who had no opinion, who had other opinions, who only understood themselves to be Jewish through their religious communities and alongside those who thought of themselves only as loyal German, Czech or Dutch citizens. Jewish culture in Europe was wiped out. There were a few survivors here and there but most of them felt it unbearable to continue to live amongst those who had killed everybody they knew, and amongst those who had failed to prevent the killing, and amongst those who still had their children and their friends and relatives.

Before, during and after the Holocaust, Jews tried to leave Europe and they went wherever they were allowed. Lots of Jews were learning the dismal lesson that the Twentieth Century beat into so many around the world: if you have no state of your own, you have no rights. On April 20th 1945 a British army chaplain helped organise a Shabbat service five days after the liberation of the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. A contemporary BBC radio report says that it was the first Jewish religious service held without fear on German soil for a decade. The report says:

During the service the few hundred people gathered together were sobbing openly with joy at their liberation and with sorrow at the memory of their parents and brothers and sisters who had been taken from them and gassed and burnt. These people knew they were being recorded. They wanted the world to hear their voice. They made a tremendous effort which quite exhausted them.

The exhausting effort they made was to sing Hatikva, the Zionist national anthem, so it could be heard around the world. This was how they made their progressive case for Israel. For many survivors, getting out of Europe was not enough. Having been taught that they couldn’t rely on others to help them, they wanted Jewish national self-determination. Feeling safe was too much to hope for, but it would make them feel that if they were again threatened as Jews, then they would be able to die defending themselves, collectively, as Jews.

Even now, there was still a case to be made for and against Israel. Perhaps immigration into Palestine was too dangerous for Jews, perhaps Israel was an impossible and utopian idea. Perhaps the need for Jewish self defence could be realised within some kind of bi-national arrangement with the Arabs of Palestine.

But as the Holocaust had defeated the Socialists and the Bundists, so these other criticisms were answered, not by argument or reason but by huge, irreversible events in the material world; in this case by the UN decision to found Israel and by the defence of the new state against the invading armies of neighbouring states which tried to push the Jews out. The Jews, armed by Stalin via Czechoslovakia, in violation of a British and American arms embargo, were not pushed out. About 700,000 Palestinian Arabs left, fled or were forced out during the war and were not allowed back by the new state of Israel. For them this was truly a catastrophe but the Israel/Palestine conflict was never inevitable. It was the result of successive defeats for progressive forces within both nations. It is still not inevitable. Neither could the fact of the conflict possibly de-legitimise a nation. Nations exist and do not require legitimacy.

Isaac Deutcher, Trotsky’s biographer, who had been a Socialist anti-Zionist before the Holocaust, wrote the following in 1954:

I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilization, which that society and civilization have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.

Deutscher was not embracing Zionism as an ideology, he was recognising that the debate was over. Israel now existed in the material world and no longer just in the imagination. Antisemitism treats ‘the Jews’ as an idea rather than as a collectivity of actual human beings; an idea which can be opposed was transformed into a people which could be eliminated. To think of Israel as an idea or as a political movement rather than as a nation state makes it possible to think of eliminating it too.

Israel needs to find the peace with its neighbours, amongst whom hostile and antisemitic movements have significant influence. It needs to continue to fulfil contradictory requirements, as a democratic state for both its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, but also as a Jewish state, guaranteeing the rights of Jews in particular. There is nothing unusual about a social institution finding pragmatic and difficult ways to fulfil contradictory requirements.

But what if it turns out that Zionism’s promise to build a ‘normal’ nation state was utopian. Perhaps the poison of the Holocaust is not yet spent. Maybe Israel is, as Detuscher thought, a precarious life-raft state , floating in a hostile sea and before a careless world. Perhaps the pressure on Israel from outside, and the unique circumstances of its foundation are creating too many agonising internal contradictions and fault-lines. Whereas people used to tell the Jews of Europe to go home to Palestine, now they tell the Jews of Israel to go home to Europe. Whereas ‘the Jews’ were thought to be central to the workings of capitalism, today Israel is said to be the keystone of imperialism. If the Palestinians have come to symbolise the victims of ‘the West’ then ‘the Jews’ are again cast in the symbolic imagination as the villains of the world. Perhaps Israel is precarious and perhaps we have not yet seen the final Act of the tragedy of the Jews. And if it comes to pass, there will be those watching who will still be capable of saying, with faux sadness, that ‘the Jews’ brought this upon themselves.

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