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A Preface to Zionism, Israel & the Arabs

By Hal Draper

Center for Socialist History, 1990




A personal word may help to explain some minor aspects of this collection. It does not offer a systematic analysis of Zionism and Israel, with a complete overview, but rather only studies in certain sides of the subject. There is a reason for this.

My intensive concern with the question of Zionism began only when the issue was thrust on me—as on the socialist movement, and on the rest of the world— by the outbreak of war in the Middle East over the 1948 partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel. Zionism had never been of special interest to me: my own secular-minded Jewish family was as uninfluenced by Zionist ideas as by religious beliefs; and I had never even personally run into anti-Semitism, at least not knowingly. In general, my parents, immigrants from East Europe, reflected a milieu which has now vanished almost completely— the world of the socialistic-minded needle-trades workers of New York, like most of the other militants of the Shirt Workers Union and its successor Amalgamated Clothing Workers. They viewed Jewishness as purely a cultural artifact; they looked to build their Zion here; they looked with something like contempt on the idea of running away from the class struggle here to dream of a nationalistic utopia far away.

During the 1930s, at any rate about 1932 to 1937, I had often worked closely in the activities of the socialist student movement with young socialist Zionists (belonging, I think, to Hashomer Hatzair); but I do not recollect ever getting into an argument, or discussion, with them about Zionism. As a Marxist I held a dim view of Zionism, as negative then as it is now. I was not particularly well prepared to grapple with the problem in 1948.

The 1948 partition was generally approved by socialists as a practical-political necessity; and of course everyone was under the impress of the Holocaust horror. Still, the outbreak of war raised a new problem of policy, as war always does. As far as I recall, there was no sentiment in the Independent Socialist League—the third camp socialist organization of which I was a member— opposed to supporting Israel's defensive stance. It was a question of the context in which the war was seen: critical or uncritical of the Israelis' policies vis-a-vis the Arabs? (Remember that the American public knew little about these policies, and we knew little more.)

It turned out, or we found out, that we had a wing of the League that was— well, not exactly pro-Zionist, but soft-on-Zionism; for example, inclined to gloss over and apologize for whatever the new "Jewish state" wanted to do, with a minimum of criticism. The spokesman of this tendency in our ranks was one Al Findley, whose political approach tended to waver from soft-on-Zionism to harder-on-Zionism, depending on the level of nationalistic hysteria in the Jewish community, to which he was very sensitive.

This spectrum (soft-on to harder-on) had a stronger influence on the organization as a whole— it turned out— than I had known. To anticipate events a little: this was shown at the ISL convention of 1949. There were two resolutions on Israel and the Jewish question presented there, even though in previous years there had been no objection to a straight anti-Zionist line. One resolution was mine; it is available now because it was adopted later (in 1951) and published in the New International. A counter-resolution was submitted by Findley, to express a viewpoint which teetered on the brink of endorsing an essentially Zionist view of Israel with fuzzier words. Neither resolution gained a majority at the 1949 gathering; but the Findley thesis garnered more votes than mine. And influential leaders, who had not previously been known as sympathetic to Zionism, now abstained from the vote: in particular, Max Shachtman and N. Gould. Obviously our group was temporarily reeling under the wave of Jewish-nationalist sentiment unleashed by the establishment of Israel. I say temporarily, for at the next convention in 1951 I reintroduced the same resolution word-for-word, and this time got a unanimous vote in favor (including even Findley— temporarily).

This 1949 episode was the last time the group as such staggered on the question, though on later occasions— as when England, France and Israel ganged up to attack Suez— our small soft-on-Zionism wing went through its heart-burnings.

But let us return to early 1948; the delicate state of affairs in the ranks was still unknown to me. I had just returned to New York from a five-year sojourn in the Los Angeles area, had just taken on editorship of the New International—the monthly journal of the organization—and become a member of the ISL's resident political committee. In this situation, the very first heavy political issue I faced was the one on the Palestine partition and the new war.

It turned out (to skip many details) that in the political committee it devolved on me to work out the appropriate policy on the Middle East war. And I did work this policy out. It was embodied in two pieces: first, an unsigned editorial in our weekly paper Labor Action (May 24 and 31) headed "War of Independence or Expansion?" Then a signed article in the New International (July) on "How to Defend Israel."

This policy statement is included in the following pages. Why reprint it here? In the first place, I still think it is a key analysis in thinking out the Middle East puzzle. In the second place, I am very proud of it for a special reason. Many years later, during the 1960s, a revolutionary socialist group called Matzpen arose in Israel out of native Israelis— principledly anti-Zionist, third-camp in politics, home-grown (before it was torn apart by burrowing sects, Maoist and Trotskyist). And a Matzpen representative in this country made my day when he read those old pieces about 1948 and expressed his astonishment that the ISL back in 1948 had worked out exactly the same analysis of the "war of independence" that Matzpen itself had worked out a couple of decades later...

This policy statement on the war was fundamentally a warning. It explained in advance why socialists could not continue to support the national-chauvinistic policies of Israel vis-a-vis the Arab world. In editing Labor Action from 1949 on, my relative ignorance about the politics and history of Zionism was a handicap, however— though I had begun to read about the subject. Two aids came to the rescue in part.

Firstly: Labor Action had contact inside Israel with (non-Stalinist) critics of Zionism, and we printed their reports whenever we could get them. One was J. Artusky of the old "Polish" Jewish Bund, who was a leader of a Bund group in Israel; and another was M. Stein, who was then especially involved in combating the regime's official policy of suppressing Yiddish as a language. (For a whole period, Israel was the only country in the world that forbade the publication of a newspaper in Yiddish.)

Secondly: I made the acquaintance, right in New York, of a great-hearted man— William Zukerman, the editor and publisher of the Jewish Newsletter. Here was a totally honest, as well as knowledgeable, voice on all aspects of the "Jewish question," at home as well as in the Middle East. In the course of the 1950s, Labor Action was going to reprint many news items and commentaries from the columns of Zukerman's modest paper. Besides, I came to know Zukerman well as a friend and mentor (though he must have been twenty years older), and thus I gained in the understanding of the background that had produced Zukerman; the background which, as it happened, was the same as or allied to the secular-humanist outlook of the now-vanished Jewish world that had also been that of my shirtworker-parents. Except that Zukerman represented the intellectuals' side of that society, while the shirtworkers and ILGWU operatives represented the labor movement's end.

The least I can say about Zukerman's Jewish Newsletter (and the allied materials it led me to) is that it kept me straightened out on the problems of the Middle East and their relations to the Jewish people. It had weaknesses, to be sure; for one thing, Zukerman was a mild social-democrat in general politics, though I never noted any antirevolutionary knee-jerk in his reactions. In any case, the Jewish Newsletter was a basic recourse for me, during all the years from April 1949 (when I became editor of the weekly Labor Action) until the middle of 1957, when the political collapse of the ISL sent me back to the West Coast.

In the middle 1950s (it must have been about 1955) I was thrown still deeper into the complex of problems clustering around Israel. This resulted directly from an article I refused to print in Labor Action. I had seen references to the discriminations and harassments against Israeli Arabs by the "Jewish state," but it was impossible to find any information on this subject in the American press; presumably such offenses against its Arab population did not exist in Israel.

One day I received an article from one of my contributors in Israel, in Hebrew, on precisely the subject in question: the treatment of the Israeli Arabs in Israel. (I omit the writer's name for reasons to be seen in a moment.) The article was translated into English in record time; I read it eagerly; and then stared at it in puzzlement. The situation it described sounded authentic; but as for its detailed facts—there was something "off" about most of them. The translator and I started checking individual facts—and most of them checked out a little askew, some a lot askew. Other facts, unchecked, sounded exaggerated, even if essentially true. I got the impression of a research job that was careless, unbuttoned, eminently refutable in detail if not in essence. An article like this could discredit us, and make a return to the subject very difficult.

Yet there was very important material floating in that stew; could something be salvaged? This was how I got acquainted with the magnificent Zionist Library in New York City, which not only carried Zionist and Jewish-related periodicals from all over the world but also compiled a Zionist Periodical Index. At first I thought my lack of Hebrew might be an insuperable obstacle, but the Periodical Index pointed to numerous translations (into English, French, etc.) of important articles originally published in Hebrew, like certain essays in the Israeli Haaretz. I worked away in this wonderful library, part-time of course, for somewhere near two months; and by that time I was sure of what I had. The result was the production of two long studies published in The New International, "Israel's Arab Minority: The Beginning of a Tragedy," and with the same main title, "The Great Land Robbery." For that matter, I had copious notes for follow-up articles, which I never got around to producing.

There was one other outstanding contribution to my education. I discovered that a doctoral dissertation had been published on my subject, "Israel and the Arab Refugees," by Don Peretz (Columbia, 1954), available in two mimeographed volumes. It was a magnificent job of research, and at that time the sole honest-scholarly inquiry into the question. Peretz was a disciple of Judah L. Magnes, founder of the Ichud. (His work was later published, in revised form, as a book.) I got personally acquainted with Peretz, who helped whenever called on for information.


At the present moment in 1990, thirty-forty years after some of these studies were originally published, the most unexpected fact is the following: most of the material thus published has not yet been superseded. This is shocking, and betokens the extent to which the facts about Israel have been long suppressed.

Take the subject of the plight of the Israeli Arabs: because so much archival documentary material has been so recently opened to examination, there are now three books (three outstanding books) that marshal a good deal of the true picture of what happened in 1947/48-1949. These three books were published only in 1986-1987— so late!

But astonishingly, even these three books do not duplicate the material which I dredged out of the Zionist Library in 1955. For what these new books have to offer is material which was secret in that year, hidden in secret archives and confidential collections, and only now made public. What is contained in my two studies on "Israel's Arab Minority" is, on the contrary, material that was quite public in 1955, open to the general public—already published for anyone to find who wanted to look. What I find still difficult to understand is why nobody wanted to look.

The three aforementioned books, which today are indispensable for the history of the truth, have been little reviewed, suppressed in a small way. But their contents will percolate through the public. They are:

  • Segev, Tom. 1949. The first Israelis. Arlen Neal Weinstein, English language editor. New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1986. [Original published in Hebrew.]
  • Flapan, Simha. The birth of Israel. Myths and realities. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987.
  • Morris, Benny. The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, 1947-1949. (Cambridge Middle East Library) Cambridge University Press, 1987.

To this, add the above-mentioned pioneer:

Peretz, Don. Israel and the Palestine Arabs. Washington, D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1958.

And the following book is unique as a Marxist work on the broad subject which is at the same time skillfully-scholarly done:

  • Weinstock, Nathan. Zionism: false messiah. Trans. & ed. by Alan Adler. London: Ink Links, 1979. [This is the English version only of Part I of the French original, below]
  • Weinstock, Nathan. Le sionisme contre Israël. Paris: François Maspero, 1969. [Part II remains untranslated: Les Israéliens à la recherche d'un avenir (1948-1968)]

If you read the three books first mentioned, by Segev, Flapan and Morris, you will realize two things about the historical picture offered by the contents of this book: (1) virtually every aspect covered, in every article, is fully confirmed by the new revelations, except (2) for one qualification, namely, the truth was stated mildly and moderately back then, as compared with the greater harshness of the reality. What I mean is this sort of thing: where I intimated that official statements should be taken with a pinch of salt, the fact is I should have said roundly that we were dealing with a Big Lie. I tended to accept the view held by Peretz, for example, that the official Israeli policy of expulsion and exclusion of Israeli Arabs developed only gradually at first, and did not harden into a conscious and systematic state policy until (say) 1949. There is still some truth to this, but documents that were once secret now reveal that more Zionist leaders than we thought (especially Ben-Gurion) understood from the very beginning the direction that events would have to take, and why the Zionists wanted them that way.


Politically there is one all-important difference in the situation— a difference between the period when these essays were written as compared with the present day. My debate with Clovis Maksoud immediately suggests this difference, for at issue was the preoccupation of Arab socialist elements with the "militant" line of crushing Israel out of existence, rather than changing its policies. We Independent Socialists refrained from giving political support to any of the Palestinian political groups, precisely because their official policies were formulated in terms of "destroying" Israel. (Thus, Zionist apologists denounced us as "pro-Arab" while some Arab socialists like Maksoud denounced us as pro-Zionist: but this pattern was inevitable and did not bother us.) Politically we stated our support in terms of a series of demands by the Palestinians, as was done in articles included here (see especially "To Break the Vicious Spiral").

On this question too, we won in the end—"won" so to speak, for the pressure leading to the change was not our doing but a triumph of the young people who carried on the great intifada waged in the occupied territories. We can say now, and with great satisfaction, that the general line being followed by the PLO leadership under Arafat and by the Palestinian movement of rebellion is essentially the line that we advocated among both Jewish-Zionist and Arab-nationalist socialists. This is simply a matter of "pointing with pride," you understand, since there is no claim about influencing events; but the pride involved bears on the general nature of our Independent Socialist and "third camp" politics as a guide to an era.

I make only this claim: that there is no political tendency other than that of Independent Socialism that can reprint its main political documents thirty-forty years later with such total confirmation of its political programmatic ideas and analyses. These ideas are still the best guide to politics.


January 1990 H.D.

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