Israel turns 60 – where next for the Jewish and Palestinian peoples?

On the 14th May 1948 the state of Israel was proclaimed independent. The immediate results were an outbreak of killings and the creation of huge numbers of Israeli and Palestinian refugees. Palestinians refer to it as the naqba (catastrophe). Luke Wilson explains how Israel has become a bulwark of imperialism, what it has meant for the politics of the Middle East, for Israeli Jews and Palestinians, and how the creation of Israel has perpetuated anti-semitism elsewhere.


David Ben-Gurion
David Ben-Gurion proclaiming Israeli independence

On May 14th, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, leader of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, declared the independence of the State of Israel. Soon afterwards, the constant fighting between Jewish and Arab militias would erupt into a full-scale war, dragging in neighbouring Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and displacing over a million people. Though figures vary, it is estimated that over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes by the nascent Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Jewish militias. Just as tragically, more than 600,000 Jews fled or were driven from their homes across the Arab world; many would make their homes in the new State of Israel.

60 years on, the problems of this troubled region remain, with repercussions for the rest of the world. The Palestinian refugees and their descendents, now believed to number 3-4 million, still live in squalid refugee camps, and face often daily harassment and terror at the hands of the IDF. On the flip-side, the creation of Israel, which was supposed to solve the ‘Jewish question’ and emancipate the Jews from antisemitism, has manifestly failed to achieve this: Israel’s citizens have had to live through several major wars and a consistent terrorist threat, and an undercurrent of anti-semitism exists today even in the West (albeit at relatively low levels).

So where did the movement to found the modern Israeli State come from? What roles did imperialism and the Soviet Union play in bringing this about? And what does the future hold for the Jewish and Palestinian peoples?

The historical roots of Zionism

The term Zionism refers to the nationalist movement with the aim of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Its origin is attributed to Theodor Herzl, a wealthy Austro-Hungarian journalist, who put forward the idea at the first World Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. Initially, Zionism largely involved wealthy Jews buying land in Palestine from absentee Arab landlords (often leading to the eviction of the existing Palestinian tenants), and donating it to Jewish settlers, who would form collectives and work the land.

Theodor Herzl
Theodor Herzl

Zionism was Herzl’s answer to the age-old ‘Jewish question’, that of emancipating the Jewish people from anti-semitic discrimination and raising them to a level of equality with other peoples. The nineteenth century had seen severe anti-semitic reaction across Europe, particularly in Tsarist Russia, where many were butchered in pogroms. However, Zionism was a bourgeois answer to the question, seeking emancipation by separating the Jewish people from the struggles of other peoples for emancipation from the drudgery and enslavement of capitalism.

In the early years, Zionism attracted little interest from European Jews, wealthy or poor, bourgeois or proletarian. My own ancestors, who were of the German petit-bourgeoisie, had little interest, forsaking the harsh desert of Palestine for more hospitable surroundings in England (though many of their descendents have since ended up in Israel, after the holocaust). For the Jewish proletariat across Germany and Eastern Europe, the class struggle, in the form of the Bund and the Bolsheviks, was more attractive than the isolationism of Zionism. Nonetheless, a steady trickle of Jews, mostly of European origin, entered Palestine throughout the early twentieth century: by 1914, around 60,000 Jews (7% of the total population) called Palestine home, and by 1941 this had risen to just under 475,000 (30% of the total population)[i].

Relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine

The manner in which the Zionist movement colluded with absentee Arab landlords to expel Palestinian farmers from their land naturally created hostility between the Jewish settlers and the Arab inhabitants. Nonetheless, there were examples of joint struggle of Jewish and Arab workers against their employers.

In 1920, the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Palestine, or Histadrut, was established. A coalition of various political parties or movements, its roles included absorbing new Jewish immigrants, establishing workers’ cooperatives, and providing basic social services. Already, the industrialisation caused by settlement was attracting Arab workers from the surrounding countries, whose standard of living was on the whole much lower than that of the European Jews. As with all capitalist concerns, the businesses sought to employ these workers at lower rates, thus helping to drive down wages (and foment racism at the same time). However, a contradiction arose: the Zionist movement’s social base was Jewish immigration (it relied heavily on help from Jews outside Palestine to make it happen), and hence there was an ideological commitment to providing work for Jewish immigrants.

In 1921, David Ben-Gurion proposed a programme of creating parallel unions for Arab workers, to prevent them being used to undercut Jewish wages. However, under capitalism, the contradictions wouldn’t go away, and Ben-Gurion gradually came to the conclusion that total separation of Jews and Arabs was necessary, i.e. Palestine had to be partitioned.

Despite this reactionary role by the Histadrut leadership, joint struggles did happen. For example, 1931 saw a joint strike of Jewish and Arab bus and taxi drivers against heavy taxes imposed by the British occupiers. Both the leaders of the Histadrut and the growing pan-Arab nationalist movement vehemently opposed this strike, and it collapsed. A more detailed account of this period can be found in Arab-Jewish workers' joint struggles prior to the partition of Palestine.

Sadly, these joint struggles were isolated examples. The reactionary role of the Histadrut and Palestinian Arab Workers' Society (an Arab union formed due to Arabs being excluded from the Histadrut), as well as the treacherous role of the Stalinists in the Soviet Union (who opportunistically vacillated between gratuitous anti-semitism and support for Zionism!), ultimately sabotaged the potential for unity along class lines.

The Holocaust, the imperialists and Stalinism: partition, a crime against both peoples

The Holocaust changed the dynamics considerably. The butchering of six million Jews created millions of refugees looking for a home. Many of these fled to Palestine. However, despite Zionist propaganda, it should be noted that the Zionist movement did not play an honourable role regarding saving these poor souls. Whereas the labour movements of the USA, Britain and elsewhere organised campaigns to open the borders of their countries to Jewish refugees, the Zionist movement and the Jewish communal leaderships played little role: their interest was in populating Palestine with Jews, not saving Jews from the gas chambers.

Nor were the British and US imperialists the ‘saviours of the Jews’. Consistently refusing to bomb the railway tracks leading to the extermination camps, they also vehemently resisted Jewish immigration into their own countries, and Britain severely restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine. The US government famously turned away the S.S. St. Louis, a boat full of refugees fleeing Nazi terror, in 1939 (many of the refugees eventually perished at the hands of the Nazis), and the British similarly refused to allow the Struma to land in Palestine in 1942 (the ship was later sunk by a Soviet submarine).

Israel Contrary to some views on the left, neither the British nor US imperialists gave unconditional backing to the Zionist movement (see Some historical clarifications on Israel/Palestine for more details). Britain promised Palestine first to the Arabs (in 1916), then to the Jews (the famous Balfour Declaration of 1917). Following their historical imperialist policy (replicated, for example, in India), they attempted to maintain control by turning the resident peoples against each other. In fact, Britain was against the emergence of a strong Jewish state: British officers commanded the Jordanian units that attacked Israel in 1948! The holocaust had caused Jews of all political stripes (including… communists) to emigrate to Palestine, and the British feared a Jewish state might fall under Soviet influence.

Amazingly, some Stalinists believe that Stalin was a consistent fighter against Zionism. This could not be further from the truth! Whilst Stalin did indulge in the most obnoxious anti-semitism (including murdering many Jewish Bolsheviks), he in fact supported the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state, believing he could use it as a bulwark against the British-influenced Arab monarchies. Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia was in fact one of the first states to arm the new Jewish state after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine.

Similarly, the US initially supported the embargo of Israel. It changed its position as a result of its manoeuvring against British imperialism, as Britain’s position weakened in the Middle East. Still, Britain and the US would only come to fully support (and dominate) Israel as the Soviet Union extended its influence over Arab states, particularly Egypt and Syria.

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Britain agreed to withdraw gradually from Palestine, relinquishing control to the UN. However, as we have seen, it was already manoeuvring to strengthen its own interests. The British occupation of Palestine had seen consistent violence between Jewish and Arab gangs, and between Jewish guerrillas and the British army (in 1946, the Irgun, a Jewish guerrilla group, blew up the King David Hotel, home to the British military command, killing 92 people). In 1948, this broke out into full-scale war. As we have seen, over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes by the nascent Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Jewish militias, and more than 600,000 Jews fled or were driven from their homes across the Arab world. Whilst these Jews would later become citizens of Israel (admittedly amongst the poorest), the Palestinians to this day remain refugees.


As the Soviet Union extended its influence over Egypt and Syria, Israel would become an ever-increasingly important bulwark of US imperialism in the region. The Cold War turned the Middle East into a battleground, and Israel’s short history has been a bloody one. Even since the fall of the Soviet Union, Israel has been a key part of US attempts to maintain control over the region. Poverty in Israel is also rising. Capitalism has failed to create a prosperous society for Israel’s Jews. Pensioners are reduced to eating rotten fruit thrown out by supermarkets at the end of the day; civil servants go unpaid for over a year; students are crippled with rising fees and debt.

As for the Palestinians, they continue to live as refugees in the Occupied Territories, Lebanon and Jordan, confined to the margins of society. A decades-long guerrilla-campaign by various petit-bourgeois groups around the Palestinian Liberation Organisation has failed to liberate this people; indeed, the PLO leaders have (as in Ireland with Sinn Fein) transformed themselves into collaborators of the worst sort. Hamas cannot provide an alternate to Palestinians.

It’s therefore safe to conclude that Zionism has utterly failed the peoples of Israel and Palestine. What has it done for Jews in the West? Well, despite the relative economic prosperity of Jews in the West (for example, in Britain, nearly 60% of Jewish males and 30% of Jewish females are employed in ‘managerial and professional’ occupations, much higher than any other religious group[ii]), violent attacks against Jews still occur, and are actually increasing. Many of these attacks are by young Muslims, brought up with television images of suffering Palestinians, and encouraged by reactionary religious leaders to attack their Jewish neighbours.

In addition, a section of respectable political discourse centres around disturbing conspiracy theories of Jewish domination, particularly of the US government (Mearsheimer and Walt’s 2006 paper, for example, purports to show that a Jewish lobby directs US policy in the Middle East counter to US strategic interests). The fact that anti-semitism still plays a political role is because the Jewish Question has transformed itself into a national question (something Marx could not have been expected to predict when he argued in On the Jewish Question that Jews would be freed from anti-semitism when they were economically emancipated). Zionism’s gift to the Jewish people is a continuation of anti-semitism.

Is there a solution?

Capitalism, with its history of pitting different ethnic or religious groups against each other in search of lower wages, clearly offers no solution. Nor can we have any faith in the manoeuvring of the imperialist powers, and their so-called ‘peace-plans’, which would lead to a hopelessly weak Palestinian Bantustan (like the black ‘homelands’  in apartheid South Africa, which were actually just labour reserves for South African capitalism) under the economic heel of Israel, and continued exploitation of Jewish and Arab workers.

Some sections of the petit-bourgeois left give support to Islamic fundamentalism, and argue for the destruction of Israel and its replacement by a single Arab (possibly Islamic) Palestine. Obviously we cannot support any such thing. To begin with, it would have catastrophic consequences for Israel’s Jews, who would be a persecuted minority in an Arab/Islamic state. Secondly, a capitalist Palestine, even an Arab/Islamic capitalist Palestine, would be incapable of raising the Palestinian people out of poverty. Capitalism drives down wages and living conditions, it does not raise them. Thirdly, Israel has the Middle East’s biggest military machine. Whilst guerrilla tactics have had some success in defeating Israeli aggression (Hezbollah’s victory in 2006 is one such example), destroying the state is another matter entirely.

In the last analysis, the only allies the Israeli and Arab workers and poor have are each other. The marvellous workers’ movements across Egypt show that the power of capitalism and imperialism can be challenged. Only united in revolutionary struggle against their common enemy, the vampiric capitalist class and imperialist overlords, can the workers of Palestine, Israel and the wider Middle East transform society into something better.

[i] Israeli - Palestinian - Population Statistics

[ii] See second figure in National Statistics - Employment Patterns