Oct 14, 2023

Israel, Palestine and the Contradictions of Nationalism

Guest post by Plotnikov

Editors’ Note: The following guest post is intended to offer some helpful context for understanding and discussing the current war between Israel and Hamas—and the broader war between Israel and the people of Gaza. We believe our primary responsibility in this situation is to oppose the forced displacement and mass killing of the Palestinian people. At the same time, we also have a responsibility to attempt an honest assessment of the conflict overall. We reject efforts (by both supporters and opponents) to equate the Palestinian people with Hamas; we also reject claims that any criticism of Hamas’s ideology or tactics helps Palestinians’ oppressors and murderers, or that any attack on Israel (or on U.S. imperialism) is a blow for liberatory politics.

Palestinians sift through rubble of apartment building destroyed by Israeli air strikes
Gaza City, 8 October 2023

I’ve been asked by several friends now what my take on the war in Palestine/Israel is. It’s “critical support for Palestinian liberation,” but that’s a term that bears a lot of explanation and nuance, because I take the “critical” in “critical support” seriously.

Israel is a settler colonial project which has taken the long-ago historic and religious claims of the Jewish people to Palestine and the presence of a Palestinian Jewish community there as the grounds to settle huge number of other Jewish people from around the world there, and to drive out the Palestinian Arabs living there in an ethnic cleansing known as the Nakba. Since the Nakba, Israel has maintained a repressive and violent state over and against the Palestinians, who have been in desperate straits as a refugee diaspora or living under occupation since the founding of Israel. Israel has aspired to be a liberal democracy, but also a Jewish ethno-state. The violent logic of its existence, its need to repress the native people of the land it has taken, and the need to forcibly keep the country demographically Jewish have all helped to ensure its slide into greater authoritarianism, and Bibi’s government is the most violently authoritarian and fundamentalist yet. The Israeli government holds over a thousand Palestinians in administrative detention without charges or trial. It starves the people of Gaza of basic humanitarian and construction supplies. It slowly is eating away at remaining Palestinian territory in the West Bank, where it maintains a police state to protect settlers. It practices collective punishment against the Palestinians in retaliation for acts of resistance.

Israel in its existence and actions presents a challenge to left thought on nationalism. One of the thought-ending clich├ęs that many activists use is some variation of “Nationalism is oppressive, but the nationalism of the oppressed is liberatory.” This is an overly simplistic formulation that falls apart quickly. Zionism was the nationalist movement among Jews, who have undeniably been an oppressed people, and was a direct response to their oppression. Yet, by seeking to set up a state on land already occupied by others, it immediately became an oppressive force—in a more dramatic way than many nation states, which in their formation often displace or forcibly assimilate those outside the nation. In addition to trying to set up a nation state on already-occupied land, Zionism also ran into the other problem that national movements face: They are extremely broad fronts which contain different classes and power structures within the nation and the different interests and political tendencies inevitable in such a broad coalition. So, Zionism contained both the socialist Labor Zionism, and more liberal conceptions of Zionism, and ethno-nationalist and religious fundamentalist conceptions of Zionism. The latter have become dominant in Israeli politics, but even Labor Zionism is the left wing of a colonial project.

National liberation (or in Israel’s case, national foundation) movements almost always have these separate tendencies. The Irish Republican movement saw syndicalists, anarchists, and Marxists in the Irish Citizens Army fighting alongside religious conservative Gaelic nationalists, future fascist blueshirts, and guerrillas who relied on keeping good relations with rich landlords for strategic purposes in the war, and these tensions contributed to the Irish Civil War and to many political conflicts within the Republican movement since then. American Black nationalism has tendencies which are socialist, internationalist, and pan-Africanist and also tendencies which are extremely gender conservative, subscribe to reactionary biological race ideology, and emphasize black capitalism. Indian nationalism had such adherents as the revolutionary Bhagat Singh and other anti-colonial revolutionaries, but also the entire far right movement of Hindutva. It’s not as simple as the nationalism of the oppressed being liberatory. Oppressed people, in fighting against the oppression of their nation, historically find themselves forming broad fronts in which some forces have a very liberatory vision for the future and others a deeply conservative one. On the whole, post-colonial nations have tended to pull towards the Right and towards being dominated by local power structures and pressure from neo-colonialism, not too long after the revolutionary period starts to wind down.

All of which brings us to the state of the Palestinian liberation movement today. During the Cold War, when subscribing to Marxism could get a decolonization movement backing from the USSR (unless they were trying to decolonize themselves from the state-capitalist bureaucrats in Moscow), most national liberation movements described themselves as revolutionary socialists, with varying degrees of sincerity. The left-wing parties of the Palestinian liberation movement, today, make up the parties in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which has power mostly in the West Bank and not in Gaza. The left of the Palestinian struggle has been more open to negotiating with their colonizer and trying to move towards a two-state solution since decades of insurgency and revolts have not brought about liberation. This more conciliatory stance has lost them some support among those facing daily Israeli violence. This is not an unusual dynamic in colonial struggles; it happened in Northern Ireland in the beginning of the Troubles, when the IRA’s caution in responding to state and Loyalist terror led to the splitting off of the Provisional IRA, which was initially smaller but grew larger as it gained support for its active resistance.

In fact, it bears wondering if the heyday of left-wing nationalism as a dominant force in anti-colonial movements is behind us now that the broader network of such struggles is dwindling and no longer has the geopolitical backing of, and incentive to orient to, the Cold War era USSR. The People’s Republic of China has not been a replacement fostering left-wing anti-colonial struggles, and left nationalists in colonized nations really have no great power offering them support. Right-wing nationalisms and the internationalism of religious fundamentalism have become more common in such movements. Anti-colonial movements today still gravitate towards choosing the backing of one empire or another against the empire they’re trying to break free from. Note, for example, Ukrainian or Kurdish willingness to get US military aid, or the enthusiasm of a good base of people in the Sahel countries for switching from a client relationship with France to one more aligned with Russia. Palestine, unfortunately, really has no great power backing it—just the regional power of Iran. While the western imperialists back Israel and have for decades, the eastern great powers like Russia and China now see more advantage in courting Israel (which has lots to offer international partners especially in terms of arms technology) than in supporting Palestine, though they are less hostile to Palestine than the western powers.

Hamas is a religious fundamentalist force which has gained support (and repressed its political rivals) as it has sustained armed resistance to Israel. For Palestinians facing ongoing colonization, state violence, incarceration, discrimination, economic blockade, etc etc, this gains them a good measure of respect. This is generally how far-right forces can win mass support—by putting themselves at the front of a fight to defend the nation from a colonizing or oppressing force. It’s the gambit that the Ukrainian far right made during the Maidan and after it, seeking to be very visibly the militant vanguard of the struggle against Russian domination in hopes it would win them greater support and legitimacy among the people. Hamas played this gambit well and has cemented a base of power (insofar as a rebel army of the colonized can have power) in the open-air prison that is Gaza.

One can, and I think must, be able to support a struggle against colonization while being critical of (or just outright against) specific forces and actors within that struggle whose aims or methods are reactionary. Hamas are a reactionary force, even when they are fighting for a cause that is very worthy of support. Their own violence towards their fellow Palestinians, their aims as fundamentalists, and their tactics including the targeting of civilians are all enough to put them outside of the circle of forces worth supporting. None of which is to excuse at ALL the Israeli state, which in this war is going to wreak horrific suffering and death on the people of Gaza far above and beyond the gut-wrenching suffering inflicted on Israeli civilians in the last several days. But we in the west won’t see most of that suffering, unless we specifically seek out news that shows it. We are shown the horrifying and true images of what Hamas death squads have done to Israeli civilians, but the cameras will gloss over the atrocities the Gazans have suffered through before this escalation, and the atrocities they now face at the hands of that death squad the IDF.

I don’t have actionable steps to take here, other than that westerners should oppose our governments arming Israel, and should support campaigns such as BDS to pressure Israel into ending its violent apartheid against Palestinians. I intend to continue supporting the Palestinian liberation movement, and to continue as I always have done, seeking to support those sections of the movement which align with humanist, anticapitalist values and not with religious fundamentalism.

Photo credit:

Photo by Wafa in contract with a local company (APA Images) (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED), via Wikimedia Commons. Original description: Palestinians inspect the ruins of Aklouk Tower destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City on October 8, 2023.