Is Israel a Democracy? An Interview with Yossi Schwartz

It is common among some groups on the left to portray Israel as not being a “democracy”. Bourgeois politicians on the other hand say that Israel is the only “true democracy” in the Middle East. None of this serves to understand the real nature of Israel. The Middle East Panorama show on Resonance FM radio (London) sent Yossi Schwartz in Israel a list of questions relating to this issue. Some parts of this were read out on the show. Here we provide the full interview. See also in Arabic: هل إسرائيل دولة ديمقراطية؟

It is common among some groups on the left to portray Israel as not being a “democracy”. Bourgeois politicians, like the Democratic candidate for the US presidency, say that Israel is the only “true democracy” in the Middle East. None of this serves to understand the real nature of Israel. The Middle East Panorama show on Resonance FM radio (London) sent Yossi Schwartz in Israel a list of questions relating to this issue. Some parts of this were read out on the show. Here we provide the full interview. (January 2005)


The pro-imperialists who support the Israeli ruling class argue that when compared to the notoriously despotic dictatorships throughout the rest of the Middle East, Israel is the only democracy in the region. The pro-imperialists say that Israel is a democracy that defends itself from suicide bombers, terrorist organizations, and the threat of destruction on a daily basis. Furthermore, as a loyal ally of the United States, Israel crusades against the enemies of Western civilization in the “War Against Terrorism”.

This line of thought ignores the reality of the many decades of oppression suffered by the Palestinian people, as well as the role that Israel has played as a major regional imperialist power. Consequently, nowadays this argument is not very successful with liberals, as their sympathies for Zionism due to the Holocaust have been overtaken by their indignation at the crimes of the Israeli ruling class. The liberals now decry the illegal occupation as well as the repeated violations of UN resolutions that direct Israel to release the territories. Even with the UN’s clear condemnation of Israel’s many crimes against human rights, because of the backing of the US, Israel has the freedom to ignore all charges.

The Left Liberals and the reformists inveigh against the systematic oppression of the Palestinians and the lack of equality before the Law suffered by the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel. These injustices are of course true – and horrible.

These liberals argue that because of these human rights abuses, Israel cannot be a “real” democracy like the Western states. This however, is a very weak argument. The crimes of the Israeli ruling class are not fundamentally different from those of the “Democratic” Imperialist states. If the radical liberals who insist that Israel is not a Western democracy use the same criteria to classify the imperialist “democratic” states themselves, then they will have to conclude that democracy in any of these countries is a fiction. The actions of Israel in Gaza and the West Bank are no different from those of the US in Iraq. Does that mean there is no form of democracy in the US as well? Furthermore, attention must be drawn to the fact that Israel was not the only capitalist state that created a massive refugee problem in 1947.

The criminal partition of India in 1947 led to an explosion of communal strife in which more than half a million people died. 7.5 million Muslim refugees fled from India to Pakistan, while 10 million Hindus left from Pakistan for India. In 1974, the partition of Cyprus by Turkey and Greece led to a similar disaster.

Then Are India and Greece Not Democratic States?

Of course, the fact that other capitalist states have committed brutalities of their own cannot justify or excuse the offenses of the Israeli ruling class against the Palestinians. But, if we are to solve the problems that have been created by the capitalist system then we must deal with the facts of reality – not with vague ideas of some fictitious, abstract democracy. It is the method of the idealist to invent an abstract model of an ideal democratic system and to employ it as a criterion by which any particular state is to be defined. This is a wholly unscientific approach to understanding social reality.

To truly understand the nature of the Israeli state, we must begin by explaining that Israel is a form of bourgeois democracy. The government is elected. The Palestinian citizens of Israel participate in the electoral process and have their own parties. When we say that Israel is a bourgeois democracy we are not ignoring the fact that Israel is an imperialist state, or that Israel is in direct military control of the West Bank and of Gaza, or that the Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer from systemic discrimination. What must be understood is that this is the appalling state of bourgeois democracy in the period of capitalist decay.

What is bourgeois democracy? It is a political form for a state governing in the interests of capitalism. In this specific form, representatives of the bourgeoisie are elected to government through the parliamentary process.

This form of government was created by the bourgeoisie in the course of their revolutions, which were waged against the feudal system and the royal landowners. The first instance of popular rebellion against monarchy occurred in England in 1642, leading to the execution of King Charles I. In the following centuries, all across Europe political and revolutionary action against the autocracies resulted in the establishment of bourgeois democratic governments.

However, today the historical quality of the bourgeoisie is entirely different. We no longer live at the time of the rise of the capitalist class, when it could claim to stand for progress. Today bourgeois democracy has no real progressive content. Giant corporations are the real rulers of the modern world; though they are mentioned nowhere in any Constitution or Bill of Rights. These corporations have turned democracy into a farce, using it as a way in which to veil the otherwise open dictatorship of big capital. The real state of affairs is revealed when these Western “democratic” gentlemen support military coups, police states, and even fascism in order to crush the workers’ movement.

We live in the epoch of imperialism. Each major imperialist state wants to dominate the entire world economy. To this end, the imperialists take control of the underdeveloped countries, competing against one another for resources, labor, and markets. This is accomplished either through overt martial subjugation or through indirect rule by the power of financial and corporate institutions over the economy. Any attempt on the part of the workers of these countries to free themselves, advance their quality of life and means of production, and to establish a more democratic system is faced with violence and economic sabotage by the big corporations and the domestic oligarchy. Anyone who follows the events in Venezuela can see this.

Israel is not different from any of this. Israel is an imperialist and capitalist state, ruled by the big corporations.

The discrimination suffered by the Palestinian citizens of Israel is not a unique phenomenon. Capitalist states have always discriminated against national and ethnic minorities – especially during armed conflicts. It is just one of the methods used by the bourgeoisie to manipulate the population. Take as an example the compulsory dislocation and internment of civilian citizens of Japanese, German or Italian origin during the Second World War by the US, Australia, and Britain.

If one were to reason that Israel is not a democracy because of systemic discrimination against Palestinians, then by that same logic the US, Canada, Australia or France (which discriminates against citizens of Arabic origin) are not democratic states either.

This superficial concept of democracy is a dangerous notion, for it is much to the benefit of the working class to wage its struggle under the conditions of a bourgeois democracy rather than under military or fascist forms of government. For those who preach the class struggle from their armchairs it may make no difference, but it is a life-and-death matter for the trade unionists and political activists in the working class movement.

Hidden behind the argument that Israel is not a democracy there is an opprobrious implication. The real meaning of this idea is that the Israelis do not have a right to their own national territory because of the horrible crimes of the Israeli state and the bloody history of the Zionist movement.

The argument goes like this: Israel is a colonial-settler state with similarities to South Africa’s Apartheid.

Israel is a racist state that came into being as a colonial project through an alliance of the European Jewish Zionists and the Western imperialist powers. The Zionists sought European support in settling Palestine, and in return the state to be established there would be a regional base for Western imperialism. The US supported the creation of a Zionist state. In 1948, Israeli military forces overran the bulk (78%) of Palestine. The remainder came under occupation in the course of the war of 1967.

Through all of this – so they say – the absolute bulk of the Israeli/Jewish working class consciously collaborated in the Zionist project. Israel’s main trade union body, the Histadrut, was (and continues to be) one of the bastions of Zionism. Palestinian labor was to be excluded from Jewish enterprises to the greatest extent possible. Where it was not possible, Palestinian workers had to join the Histadrut, but on an unequal footing with Israeli/Jewish workers.

Israel receives billions of dollars annually from the USA. With this aid, Israel has become a military and an economic enclave of imperialism in the Middle East. The average income for an Israeli is US$17,000 a year, while the average income of a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories is – at best – one-twentieth of that.

These ideas comprise the argument of the liberals. A major weakness of this argument is that it overlooks the fact that many states have been established as settler colonies through the oppression of the native population. Amongst such countries are the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the nations of South America. Most of these states are imperialist. In each of them the reformist leadership of the labor movement has been a partner in crime to the capitalist class. To blame the working class for the crimes of the reformist labor leadership and the capitalist ruling class is the hallmark of petit-bourgeois moralism – not Marxism.

Additionally, this entire line of argument is based upon falsification of some facts and total neglect of others. For example, contrary to the argument of the liberals, the British imperialists actually opposed the creation of Israel.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France scrambled to carve out new colonies for themselves in the Middle East and Northern Africa. From the very beginning, the British imperialists promised Palestine to both the Jews and the Palestinians. Britain was pursuing its own interests in the region, disinterested in the creation of Israel. In seeking to strengthen their own position in the Middle East, the British imperialists employed the tactic of “divide and rule”, playing Arabs and Jews off against one another.

By 1939 the British imperialists had decisively rejected the very idea of an independent Jewish state. During the Second World War the British government enacted the “White Paper” policy, behaving as if Palestine were in fact already a British possession. British imperialism limited the number of Jews allowed to enter Palestine. At times these restrictions took on a brutal character.

The most notorious example of this was the monstrous maltreatment of the Jewish refugees on board the Romanian ship “Struma”. Fleeing from the certainty of extermination at the hands of the Nazis, nearly 800 Jews boarded the ship, bound first for Turkey and then onwards to Palestine. In the end, the British, exerting diplomatic pressure upon Turkey, refused to allow the ship to travel to Palestine. After more than two months docked, in limbo with nowhere to go, the ship was towed into the Black Sea, and shortly thereafter sank as the result of a mysterious explosion. There were only two survivors. Thus, due to the cynical involvement of British imperialism, countless scores of Jews were trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe with no means of escape.

In retaliation, Zionists organized terrorist groups to launch bloody campaigns against both the British and the Palestinians. Their aim was to drive the two out of Palestine, thus paving the way for the establishment of the Zionist state.

After the Second World War, the British imperialists led the Arab League (formed in 1945) to believe that the prospect of a Jewish state in Palestine had finally been erased by the White Paper of 1939. Accordingly, the Arab League announced its acceptance of the White Paper, looking forward to the end of Jewish attempts to build Israel in Palestine.

The effects of the Holocaust had created a completely new scenario. The Zionist ideal gained support. The numbers of Jews coming into Palestine continually increased. Those who came had no intention of compromising on the question of the creation of Israel.

The UN’s recommendation was for the partition of Palestine with Jerusalem as an internationally-administered city. The Palestinian Arabs, who accounted for 70% of the population and who owned 92% of the land, were allocated 47% of the country! (UN Resolution 181). Thus a terrible crime was committed against the Palestinian people.

When the UN Special Committee on Palestine voted on the partition there were 33 votes in favor, 13 against, and 10 abstentions. Amongst those who abstained was – Britain! Thus Israel was created in opposition to the plans of British imperialism.

The Arabs rejected the partition compromise of 1947. Encouraged and armed by the British, they prepared for a war to eliminate the Zionists and prevent the Jewish state in Palestine.

What Was the Position of US Imperialism and the Soviet Union?

In the initial stages of the dispute the US supported Britain’s policy. But the US ruling class was divided on the question. Ultimately, the pro-Israel wing succeeded, with Truman backing the formation of a state for the Jews. The underlying purpose of the plan was to weaken British imperialism and to bolster US influence in the Middle East.

The end of the Second World War found the Stalinist bureaucracy in conflict with its erstwhile “allies” in the West, and so they were bound to seek points of support. At the end of the war, the Middle East was dominated by British and French imperialism. Whereas Britain opposed the formation of Israel, the Stalinist bureaucracy reasoned that the institution of the Jewish state would strike a blow against British control throughout the region. The Stalinists even supplied arms through Czechoslovakia to the Jews in Palestine. And so the base machinations of the Stalinist bureaucracy (with Stalin himself in command) betrayed the true nature of their international policy as being determined by considerations of power and influence – not by the interests or needs of the workers of the world. Hence the Stalinists trampled upon the rights of the Palestinians in order to – as they saw it then – undermine British imperialism.

The erroneous notion that the entire Israeli population is one homogeneously reactionary mass completely neglects the fact that there have been many instances of the Arab and the Jewish workers joining together in struggle.

After the Second World War a state of revolutionary ferment was felt across the world, particularly in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The imperialists could not successfully intervene through military actions alone. They required other methods by which to secure their order. They were given the means to accomplish this in the form of the cooperation of the reformist Social Democrats and the conciliation of the class-collaborationist Communist Parties, which had abandoned any revolutionary perspective in order to reconcile Stalinism with the Western imperialists. The war of 1948 in Palestine was one of the devices utilized by the imperialists to impose their order.

The largest and most dramatic episode in the history of joint action between Arab and Jewish workers took place in April, 1946. The postal, telephone, and telegraph workers sparked off a movement that took on an unprecedented breadth, leading to a massive strike of both white and blue-collar government employees. The Postal Department officials had long ignored and rejected the demands of the postal workers. Sami Taha of the Palestine Arab Workers Society and Yehezkel Abramov, the secretary of the International Union of Railway, Postal and Telegraph Workers, planned for strike action involving primarily Jewish postal and telephone workers in Tel Aviv. The action was scheduled to begin on April 9, 1946. In these sectors, Arab and Jewish trade unionists had many years of experience working together, and therefore had excellent relations.

On the appointed day, the workers (including 30-40 Arabs employed at the Tel Aviv post office) went on strike. By the next day all of the postal workers in Palestine had ceased work. In the negotiations that ensued, the postal officials scrambled to offer wide-ranging concessions. The Histadrut recommended that the workers accept the offer and end the strike. As it had on similar occasions, the Histadrut feared that strike action would undermine the Zionist campaign to force the British government to yield Palestine to Jewish immigration. The rank-and-file postal workers no longer trusted the promises of the officials, and so they were in no mood to compromise. The workers voted overwhelmingly to reject the management’s offer and to continue the strike. This militancy quickly spread, and on April 14th the Arab and Jewish railway workers joined in the strike. They were absolutely determined to resist the attempts of the management to maintain control over them, and were also opposed to their own labor leaders, who had failed to respect their rights and to address their needs.

Thus the Arab workers of the AURW and the Jewish workers of the IU succeeded – together – in paralyzing the railway system across the entire country. There had never been such a generalized strike of Palestine’s railway and postal workers. Even more extraordinary was the fact that the middle and lower level white-collar government employees also joined in the strike.

By April 15, 1946, less than one week after the Tel Aviv postal workers had gone out, a total of approximately 23,000 government employees had joined in the strike. For a time it seemed that not only the tens of thousands of workers who were employed at British military bases but also the petroleum workers in the vicinity of Haifa might take strike action as well. The Arab and Jewish communists certainly hoped for this. An April 18 leaflet issued jointly by the National Liberation League and the Palestine Communist Party called on the refinery, military base staff, and municipal workers to join in the general strike. Additionally, the leaflet condemned the “imperialist government” of Palestine for having allocated more than one-fifth of its annual budget to the police and prisons – but only 8% on health, education, and social welfare combined. However, both the Histadrut and the PAWS did everything that they could to stop the strike from spreading, by keeping the refinery and military base workers at their workplaces. The Histadrut’s guiding principle was, as usual, its Zionist goal. Meanwhile, Taha had received a telephone call from the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, telling him not to go too far in cooperating with the Jews. Thereupon he made attempts to dampen the militancy of the Arab workers. What is more, he prevented the petroleum workers from joining the strike.

Left-wing Arab trade unionists were particularly angry about what they regarded as Sami Taha’s sabotage of the strike. Al-Ittihad, the newspaper of the Arab Communists who were organized in the National Liberation League at this time, sarcastically denounced the “honorable unionists” of the PAWS. These “honorable unionists” had advocated the idea that, whereas the Histadrut continually sent their representatives to intervene in the strike and lead it, the only way to foil the schemes of the Zionist Histadrut and to free their brother Arab workers from its clutches was to... return to work! They made this demand on the pretext that the strike had been foisted upon the workers from outside by the machinations of the Histadrut and its officials!

The NLL and the PCP, warning against “defeatist and reactionary elements, Arab and Jewish,” declared the strike to be “a blow against the ‘divide and rule’ policy of imperialism, a slap in the face of those who hold chauvinist ideologies and propagate national division.” Michmar, the organ of Hashomer Hatza'ir, also supported the strike, by arguing that the action demonstrated the possibility and efficacy of Arab-Jewish cooperation.

However, these revolutionary developments failed to proceed further. This was due to the treachery of the Histadrut leadership, the right wing Zionists, the Arab Nationalists, the conservative leaders of the Palestine Arab Workers Society and – above all – the pressure exerted by Stalin and Co. Their actions served only to help the imperialists, who were then able to head off the class struggle and create the conditions for the bloody tragedies of late 1947 and 1948, known as the Nakba.

What about the idea of One Secular Democratic Capitalist State?

Those in the leftist sects who deny that Israel is a form of capitalist democracy argue for one democratic secular state for Christians, Moslems and Jews, in historical Palestine.

They tell us that the best solution is to unify all of the Palestinians with the Israeli Jews who reject a role as colonial settlers opposed to the existence of the indigenous peoples, who do not wish to be masters of other people or privileged benefactors of an apartheid system. To most Israelis this idea is not a solution at all, but a threat. They want a piece of land where they may feel secure. In their minds, this sort of solution can only be imposed on them by force – and they are prepared to fight it.

The irony is that, even if this call for a unified democratic state were realized, the real outcome for the Palestinians would be incorporation within the Zionist state as second-class citizens.

And Two States?

For nearly 60 years now the reformists have spoken in favor of two separate capitalist states as a solution. 60 years is a long enough time without real progress to prove that the idea of two capitalist states is unrealistic.

Even if it were possible, the best that imperialism can offer to Palestinians in this case would be a semi-autonomous “state” with non-contiguous territories, on less than 22% of Palestine. Such a country would not be truly autonomous, as its labor force and economy would be completely dependent upon Israel. It would be disarmed, and without international borders. Furthermore, it would be unable to take an active role in the decisions of how to meet the great challenges facing the environment and resources of the region. It would lack full sovereignty over its energy, water, telecommunications, airspace, fishing rights, and trade.

The point must be stressed that two totally independent states based on capitalism will never come to be. The Israeli ruling class would not permit this. The only solution to the problem can only be realized through the overthrow of Israeli capitalism along with all of the surrounding despotic Arabic regimes. This means a revolutionary policy that unites the Jewish and Arab working class against their common enemy.

In order for this to happen, the workers on both sides must have an internationalist perspective. They need to understand that their problems cannot be solved within the narrow confines of their own nation state. The workers of Israel and Palestine must direct their struggle against their common enemies: the capitalists and landlords who dominate them both. The Jewish workers are not the enemies of the Palestinian workers, and vice versa. Even as Sharon attacks the Palestinians he is at the same time enacting draconian social and economic measures against the Jewish workers. Likewise, during the period when the Palestinian Authority was allowed to exist, we quickly saw how the elite among the Palestinians began to enrich themselves at the expense of the Palestinian workers.

Is there no solution?

Capitalism is in decay. Therefore, on the basis of capitalism there is no solution. In this period of decay, there can be only one solution to the national question, and that is the socialist solution in the form of a socialist democracy.

We can learn from Russia’s experiences after 1917. Prior to the October revolution there had been terrible conflicts between the Armenians and the Azeris, resulting in pogroms in Baku. On the basis of workers’ power two socialist republics were established, within the federation of the USSR. Each nation possessed its own territory, but once the threat of national oppression was removed borders were no longer an issue. The same happened in Yugoslavia, even without a genuinely socialist regime in power. After Tito came to power, a federal republic was created with recognized territories for the Serbs, the Croats, and others. Of course, a perfect separation of peoples is never possible – nor is it desirable from a socialist point of view. There will always be minorities. These minorities must enjoy all the same rights as all the other people living in the same territory. However, in the ex-Yugoslavia the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, etc., each had a territory that they could regard as their own. On the basis of economic development at the rapid pace of 10% a year, over a period the national antagonisms were broken down. For decades the different peoples could live together, with a free movement of peoples across the whole of the ex-Yugoslavia. The borders between the different republics were open. Unfortunately, on the basis of the economic crisis brought on by the stranglehold of the bureaucracy, capitalism returned – and all of the old problems along with it.

On the basis of the Marxist perspective it is possible to build a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. Within this federation each nation would have the fullest autonomy including the right to self-determination. Thus a homeland could be guaranteed to both the Jews as well as the Palestinians. Over a period of years as a socialist federation rapid economic development would take place. With jobs, decent housing, clean water, healthcare, and pensions for all, it would be possible to then work towards the solution of the national question with the harmonious collaboration and cooperation between all the peoples of the Middle East.

Yet there remains the problem of the refugees, who have the right to return to a homeland. The answer to this problem could not be to simply return to the exact same land and homes which they owned before 1948. A whole other nation now inhabits Israel and has been there for several generations. With the restrictions of a capitalist Israel and a capitalist Palestine there cannot be enough houses, jobs, and social services for everyone. Invariably some would lose out. In this set of circumstances, if 4 million Palestinian refugees were to return to their former lands, the Jewish population would feel swamped. The Israeli ruling class would use this to its advantage by fomenting hostility between the two peoples. That is why the Jews in Israel would never accept this on a capitalist basis. As Lenin explained long ago, the National Question is fundamentally about bread. Once the economic problems are resolved, the national conflict will gradually wither away over the course of years marked by progress.

Is the socialist perspective a dream? How can someone argue for such a solution after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

We are told that most people simply cannot accept our solution and will see it as madness. But the reality is that capitalism is no longer a progressive form of society. The ruling class is now incapable of developing the productive forces any further. Sooner or later, the working class will be pushed to the point that fighting back is the only option – even in Israel. In their struggle, the workers will learn the necessary lessons about reality and the actual solutions to their problems from a working class perspective.

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