Race, Class and the Zionist State
There is no path "around" Intifada, the working class must go in-and-through it.
A recent series of articles on Palestine have came out from various groups in the left communist and autonomist milleaus that have caused quite the stir. The response from the International Communist Tendency was expected, however I was more disappointed by the distortions put forward by UK-based Angry Workers World, whom I’ve followed for years for their work on worker inquiry and workplace strategy. However, when it comes time to talk about Palestine, they drop the ball entirely.
I find their analyses to miss the thrust of the Intifada, and are pre-occupied by the idea that this is the product of revanchist, blood-and-soil nationalism. Like most leftists, if we cannot control something, or if it doesn't fit our empirically pure understandings of class, we want to start putting our dogmas through the pamphlet-brain machine like a square peg through a round hole. Whatever they envision in occupied Palestine is unlikely to ever unfold outside of the context of the Intifada. There is no path towards an internationalist working class struggle which avoids Intifada, or treats it as something to be circumnavigated.
Amid concern trolling about Palestinian middling classes and official leadership, there is a totally impoverished analysis of the Zionist Israeli state which puts to the side entirely the cross-class dynamics which flow from this. What we end up with in Angry Workers World’s article is Zionism getting minimized into nothing, meanwhile Palestinian nationalism gets treated like a boogeyman. Zionism is just another nationalism, the Zionist state is just another state, yet those who support Palestinian Liberation must answer for a list of crimes of the Palestinian “state”.
The dogma that this analysis adheres to is not hard to understand. It is derived from the first World War and the Russian Revolution, so it is held dearly by some leftists. The official Socialist movement that had been the surrogates for the Communists had betrayed them (and of course, the working class). The working class was thus thrown into a senseless imperialist war fueled by national conflicts located in the bourgeoisie which they had little stake in, something the communists could not follow. Instead, the working class defied all odds and ended that imperialist world war by having world-historic revolutions in Germany and Russia. The doctrine by which they differentiated themselves is something I also believe in, that the working class of any nation is not above that of another nation, and therefore the strategy in the context of imperialist war is for the proletariat in those nations to work towards the defeat of their own nations, called “revolutionary defeatism”. It worked, and so 100 years later, we have the kernal for the posturing of “Neither Israel nor Palestine”.
However, this analysis makes no sense for Palestine. The influence of the US, Qatar and Iran is a result of the fundamental system in Palestine, they only serve to intensify what was already there, and what will continue to be there without these actors. It has much less in common than the actors in WWI such as Russia and Germany (or to use a modern example, perhaps the geopolitical rivalry between India and Pakistan), and has a great deal more in common with what the inventors of revolutionary defeatism saw in Ireland and the United States. These were not simply “national conflicts” nor were they primarily located in inter-bourgeois factional strife, these are colonial systems in which an imperialist power continuously settles the land and embarks on a conquest of all means to life of the previous population. These systems in the United States and Ireland share many characteristics with Palestine on which I will elaborate further, but the point which becomes pertinent to critiquing Angry Workers World’s analysis is that these systems embed a particular cross-class structure that goes beyond what can be summed up as “national oppression” (which we should still oppose), or even colonialism where settlement was limited or not the main object.
Because Ireland and the United States were so different, Marx and Lenin hardly prescribed “revolutionary defeatism” as they had for Germany and Russia. I do not invoke them in order to posit one orthodoxy against another, but rather to raise the question as to why. What is categorically different about these situations, and what are the different categories? How is the class composed in the settler colonial context? What does this mean for us in terms of strategy? To me, it makes sense to think about this in the terms we understand racial oppression in.
I am not the first or second person to try to think critically about the dynamics of racial oppression in Palestine, which is more commonly understood in terms of nationality. I do not seek to refute, in the case of Palestine, that the occupation is not a form of national oppression, or an oppression of another type. My compulsion to talk about race comes from how poorly Angry Workers World presents class politics in Palestine and in particular, the way they see the Israeli working class.
The Anatomy of Racial Oppression
What is race? What produces the categories and how does this process directly relate to class politics? How does this affect the way we see class struggle?
These questions make the smartest communists scratch their heads in confusion. Despite there being a long history of communists taking racism seriously, few can adequately answer these questions. For me, two thinkers have answered these questions fearlessly and in such a way that actually brings a great deal of clarity without mincing words, and that has been the work of Theodore W. Allen and Noel Ignatiev. Neither viewed the origins of racial oppression in isolation, both saw the system of settler-colonialism in the pre-US New World and that of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland as sharing more features than differences. After years of study, Ignatiev would eventually start to point out this system operating in Palestine.
Before we discuss the essence of racial oppression and race, I want to point out the characteristics of the regimes which produce these categories:
The codifications of this basic organizing principle in the Penal Laws of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland and the slave codes of white supremacy in continental Anglo-America present four common defining characteristics of those two regimes: 1) declassing legislation, directed at property-holding members of the oppressed group; 2) the deprivation of civil rights; 3) the illegalization of literacy; and 4) displacement of family rights and authorities. - “Summary of the Argument of the Invention of the White Race” -Theodore W. Allen, 1998
If this is sounding familiar, it should. The schematics of apartheid and how it functions in Palestine are not entirely novel. “De-classing” is done via a legal scorched earth policy, with the Jewish National Fund eternalizing land deeds to only be leased to Jews, and Histadrut conquers labor by creating closed shops based in Jewish labor and carefully making sure that industrial control of this labor is organized in such a way as to secure the best jobs for its Jewish members. A complex system of laws makes political activity of any kind that is remotely sympathetic to the Palestinian people virtually impossible, meanwhile several laws associate children and parents with each other’s “crimes” and target individual family units so as to criminalize this.
Noel Ignatiev, with the help of Ted Allen, presents how to understand this in terms of class politics:
By racial oppression I do not mean the ethnic or religious bias that exists widely, or inequalities among census groups (defined by color or any other feature), but a system of oppression that incorporates by definition portions of a subordinate class in the subjection of other members of that class, thereby constituting them as a race. The hallmark of racial oppression, as Ted Allen taught, is the reduction of every member of the subject group to a status beneath that of any member of the dominant group: Huck Finn’s Pap could push W.E.B. DuBois off the sidewalk. - “Points for Discussion on Race in the United States” Noel Ignatiev, 2014
That last scenario is not different than what is emerging in Sheikh Jarrah. Yaakov Fauci, the settler from Long Island NY, describes himself as a “tenant”, and is quite literally kicking Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd’s family off the sidewalk. The system at hand in Palestine incorporates the Israeli working class in the subjection of other members of its class, and in the microcosm of the home in Sheikh Jarrah, it is vital to it.
Amiri Barksdale describes whiteness in much the same way that I would describe how Zionism functions as the state ideology and the status it creates for Israeli Jews: “a protection racket that used to provide material bonuses. It is a minimally advantageous deal that the ruling class continuously renegotiates with a part of the working class.” This much has been known for years, it’s the basis of how we understand the essence of the white race. However, it’s how Barksdale goes further and describes how whiteness functions in the face of declining material bonuses and the dire situation of the class for everyone:
"Now that I have said that, here’s this last so-called privilege, a deadly poison: it is the sine qua non of whiteness, and it is the annihilation of solidarity: this is the privilege not to know and therefore not to care…
…To make this concrete beyond the anecdotal, this is not only about consciousness and psychology. I am thinking about geography and spatial racial and economic segregation. Most of the country is not laid out anything like New York City. Most of the country is like here in Los Angeles, where one can drive from one’s subdivision to the freeway, to a major thoroughfare and to the office, and never see anything else. The “white bubble” was made physical a long time ago, before the crisis, and people still live in that material space. And of course suburbs are often racially segregated via class mechanisms. This ignorance is the general anesthetic that allows one to cut off one’s own nose to spite one’s face, and not notice. Later, bleeding to death, one has forgotten what happened, and seeks to blame others ” Amiri Barksdale “Whiteness Again”, 2017
The “freedom not to know and not care” which Barksdale describes explains the attitude of the Israeli worker to the Palestinian worker. They do not simply want the upper hand in competition, they want to never see Palestinians, to drive on the same roads as them, or for them to be in the same market at all. They do not want to see or hear Arabic anywhere.
Even if the Zionist state is today dependent on exploitation of the Palestinian working class, its official policy (and design) is expulsive, it is to conquer both land and labor. It is not simply the policy that the tenant farmers were expelled as land was expropriated, they were expelled from the production process in order to “build a nation on Jewish labor” by trade-unions that made impossible any effort to organize on a non-racial basis. This has been nurtured into a highly formidable cross-class alliance culminating in the Zionist state.
The Cross-Class Alliance of Zionism and the Israeli State
Israel is not simply a capitalist state like the UK, to use an example. It is not anatomically or functionally the same. It is an ethno-theocracy, and that is no exaggeration. The UK (as in the Isle of Great Britain, we will leave Northern Ireland to the side for now and let comrades closer draw their own analogies) is imperialist and racist, no doubt, and worthy of its own list of crimes and inhumanities, yes. However, Israel is a settler-colonial state through and through. This is not a moral category, it is an empirical one, and one which makes all the difference here. A late comrade (and someone I presume Angry Workers World respects) Noel Ignatiev is instructive here:
“However, the pure capitalist mode of production exists nowhere; all existing societies, including those in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, contain elements left over from the past … Racial oppression is not universal to capital. Four places developed historically on the basis of racial oppression: the U.S., South Africa, Ireland, and Palestine.”
- “Points for Discussion on Race in the United States” Noel Ignatiev, 2014
It is exceptional as a settler ethno-state, at every turn it is rather anomalous. The state is not even the same on paper. It is multi-Zionist party de-facto republic, with no constitution. Only parties which espouse some form of Zionism are legally able to operate. It is defined as a state of the Jewish people worldwide, not even within its borders, which by the way, it has never defined. There are no civil marriages, inter-racial marriage is illegal. There is not even a recognized Israeli nationality, as this would undermine the idea of “Jewish statehood” and therefore the entire Zionist project.
Who are the poorest Israeli Jews? Angry Workers World says there are 2 million of them living in extreme poverty and relying on charity to survive. This seems to refer to the non-Zionist Haredim, who refuse both national military service, but also social services and welfare (hence reliance on “charity”), in addition to participation in the secular political system. However, little consideration is made for how these people in the “extreme poor” live and how this impacts their experience as poor people. This number is also nowhere near 2 million, so they must be including the other layers of Israelis, such as Beta Israel and Mizrahim, former Soviet communities and just the average poor and working class. Regardless, the left often treats these sections of the Israeli working class as some kind of Trojan horse. In the case of the Haredim, these people are committed to their way of life first and foremost. They do not participate in the Zionist state the way that religious Zionists do, but they also do not pose a significant challenge to it either, even if they do protest against the measures to conscript them into the IDF.
Today we see Beta Israel and Mizrahi Jews in every echelon of Israeli society. There’s a myth that somehow non-European Jews are at the periphery of Zionism. When Itamar Ben-Gvir, the most hardline Zionist in the Knesset by far, is Iraqi and Kurdish and looks like this, we need to adjust our understanding of the Zionist alliance in Israel:
The Failure of the “Unite and Fight” Strategy
The “black and white, unite and fight” strategy is the road of defeat and failure. It is a strategy which makes no account the different material conditions across sections of the class. It is not enough that Israeli and Palestinian working class unite around common demands, the Israeli working class must make the Palestinian demands for democratic freedom the demands of the entire working class, as CLR James prescribed to the American working class. Without the direct challenge to preferential treatment, “common demands” are doomed, and the Israeli working class with them, as any attempt to unite along class-wide demands will result their realization coming to Israelis first, and Palestinians last (if it all).
Zionism is not only a “tool of the Israeli bourgeoisie”, it is a weapon in the hands of the Israeli working class. The Zionist state is not simply a false consciousness, its support has its basis in real conditions of life, and therefore will not be overcome by simple appeals to reason and unity. It is supported by a much more formidable cross-class alliance than that of Palestine. Israeli Jewish workers benefit from it, even if they might benefit more from communism. The most pertinent point is that, for revolutionary strategists, the key problem is not the Zionism of the employing class, but the Zionism of the Israeli worker. The boss’s Zionism is a given, it will always be in his class interest. It is the support for Zionism by the Israeli worker that represents the chief obstacle to the demands of the Palestinian proletariat and world revolution, not the Israeli bourgeoisie.
It not sufficient to decry divisions in the class and call for unity, the fact is the class is divided. The question is what are we going to do about it? In the Palestinian question, there is no future for “common demands” so long as the Israeli working class is unwilling to reject its preferential treatment. Racial prejudices and grievances are the reality of the working class, they must be challenged directly rather than finding ways to forget about them.
The Palestinian “Middle-Class” and “State”
If Hamas was able to produce riots on both sides of the green line and the biggest upheaval in terms of mass participation that’s been seen in decades, then I want to know how. We know from our experiences from the uprising last year, in which over 50 million took to the streets and burned it all down, that you cannot create such a moment by finite will. An uprising of this scale, an Intifada, could only emerge from the self-activity of the working class.
Yet Hamas lives rent free in the minds of the “anti-national” left. To them, the crimes of Hamas are often enough to condemn the entire thrust of the Intifada. Any criticism of the State of Israel is met with a demand to condemn Hamas, this is a oft-used tool in the hasbara arsenal. Without getting into too many specifics, I think the influence and power of Hamas is too commonly overstated. Angry Workers World give little to no attention to the other two other important forces in Palestine, Fatah and UNRWA. I have no special love for any of these groups, however if anything has been seen, it’s that moments like the present have a tendency to create the kind of rupture by which all previous bets come off. No one and nothing should be off limits to ruthless critique, but ultimately the decision does not rest with us. So when Angry Worker’s World de-couple the Palestinian people from the PA, and point to the lack of support the PA actually has, it does not make sense to then continue to overstate it, it makes more sense to fan the flames of Intifada and leave the rest to come out in the wash.
Angry Workers World also makes flippant use of the “middle class” to disparage the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah. This serves to mystify and obfuscate the actual lines of demarcation. It is interchanged with “professionals” and “petite bourgeois” with little care for how these actually operate in Palestine (or in general, as shopkeepers and clinicians can have vastly different relations to production). The middle-class in Palestine is hardly a real middle-class. There is no state which is powerful enough to stop what Ted Allen called “de-classing”. There is no state with the strength to actually guarantee even their individual homeownership (which is something that debatably does not even eclipse the compulsion to sell labor in most cases, at great risk of being pedantic about what makes the middling classes). The primary function of the state is to protect private property and enforce the relations of capital, and yet this pattern does not hold. The youth of Sheikh Jarrah have mostly not had the luxury of growing up to be any class, and it is their refusal to be demobilized or sold out to anyone that shows they are future.
Angry Workers World also points to the general strike (that was technically neither legal nor authorized) as also having cross-class character. I see no way to prevent the participation of “professionals” in a general strike so long as such exists. Opportunists of all kinds are attracted like vampires wherever there is working class self-activity. The Democratic Party tried to impose themselves on last summer’s uprising and funnel the rebellion into proper channels, however this did not change the content of the uprising, even when they were successful in their opportunism.
My criticism of Angry Workers World is not moral, it is strategic. Their strategy is one that has consistently failed, these false calls for unity have a long history in the defeat of the working class. The major oversights in looking at the class politics and the function of the Zionist state are impoverished, when combined with this concern-trolling about the Palestinian state, make it pretty clear what the thrust of the article is, to counter-signal the left in the moment of intense demobilization.
Why does the left needs to ask what “national liberation looks like in practice” when all the practices are here before us? It looks like the broken glass in front of Israel consulates, comrades de-arresting each other, blockades and sieges, it is unpermitted marches across the world, it is the breaking of police lines, it is cargo unloaded and refused.
Regardless of whatever cross-class fronts permeate, the ultimate demands of the Palestinian people has always been fundamentally proletarian, the right of return, the freedom of movement, the crumbling of walls. These are things every worker must fight for. An attack on any one of these things is an attack on the class everywhere. The Palestinian working class continues to defy all odds, if a new world is possible, it is possible with them.
Zionism, Anti-Semitism and the People of Palestine - Noel Ignatiev
Israeli-Jewish Race Traitorship and the Question of Palestine - Ronit Lentin
Land and Existence in Gaza - Asad Haider
Points for Discussion on Race in the United States - Noel Ignatiev
Whiteness Again - Amiri Barksdale
Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York
The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States - CLR James
Summary of the Argument of the Invention of the White Race - Ted Allen