In support of Israel: Notes for a debate

Last night I debated Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers Liberty at a central London pub in front of an audience of about 30 people. My notes for the debate follow.

The main point:

Israel is facing an existential threat and it is the responsibility of socialists to defend the Jewish state.
Where we agree
Usually in these sort of debates you dive right into to what you disagree on. I believe it is equally important to see what, if anything, you do agree on.
Support a 2-state solution
Oppose the occupation
Feel concern about rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
Oppose religious fundamentalism including Islamic fundamentalism
Recognize that the Syrian and Iranian regimes are in no sense progressive but are in fact fascist or quasi-fascist states
Sympathize with Israel’s peace camp
Sympathize with the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon
Support the working class and the growth of trade unions in the entire Middle East
Even though we disagree about this war, we do agree on a great deal.
And I have been fighting for these things my whole adult life, particularly during the 18 years that I lived in Israel and fought against the Israeli Right and the settler movement.
Because I agree with you on these points, I take the view I do on the war. And I think that if you do share these views with me, you are taking the wrong line on this war.
Where we disagree
Here’s what you have been saying:
Your slogan – “Stop the Israeli assault on Gaza and Lebanon!”
(title of the main article on your website)
And again — “End the attacks on Gaza and Lebanon! No reoccupation of southern Lebanon! For a free and independent Palestinian state alongside Israel!”
And your analysis –
“Once again the Israeli government responded with a hugely disproportionate assault on Lebanon, with large and predictable civilian casualties among the Lebanese population in general.”
“Syria and Iran bang the drums in support of Hezbollah and expose themselves as the regional imperialists they are. But the decisive power here to destroy, or to keep alive, possibilities of peace, lies with the Israeli government.”

As if Hezbollah and Hamas do not exist – as if socialists should not at the very least be calling on them to cease their attacks against Israeli civilian population centres!
But you do not make this call. You focus on “Israeli attacks” and an “Israeli assault” — as if Israel was the aggressor, which it is not.
You are not telling the truth.
The question facing socialists
The question is – do we socialists support or oppose Israel in its war of self defense following the Hamas and Hizbollah attacks?
There is no third way and no third camp. We could call for a “socialist federation of the Middle East” or for the workers of Israel, Palestine and Lebanon to overthrow their bosses and embrace each other as brothers and sisters. But if that were to be our position (and not just our dream) we would be living in a fantasy.
If you support Israel’s right of self-defense as a socialist you offer that support critically, meaning that you support:
* limited war aims (putting Hizbollah and Hamas rockets out of range of Israeli civilians)
*a diplomatic solution to the conflict
And you oppose:
* unnecessary civilian deaths (noting the difference between deliberately targetting civilians and collateral damage)
* the re-occupation of Lebanon or Gaza by Israeli forces
What this means in practice is that while you might support a limited series of military actions by Israel today, were Israel to re-occupy Lebanon and Gaza, or deliberately target civilians as part of its strategy, or reject any possibility of a diplomatic solution – if Israel were to do any of those things, you could change your mind tomorrow.
And this is exactly what happened to the Israeli Left in 1982: initially the Labour Party supported the invasion, and within weeks – when it became clear what Begin and Sharon were up to – changed their views.
An historic parallel
In situations like these, we always look for historical parallels. On a recent talk show on Radio 4, the Israeli army was compared to Hitler’s Wehrmacht by a panel of pundits, to the applause of the audience.
A different historical metaphor might be the Spanish civil war, the 70th anniversary of which we are remembering this summer. It has been suggested as a model for the current fighting in the Middle East by Ephraim Sneh, a leader of the Israeli Labour Party and the son of the legendary Israeli Communist Moshe Sneh.
Clearly the use of proxy forces (in this case, Hizbollah and Hamas, back then, the mutinous officers of the Spanish army) directed by fascist states (Italy and Germany then, Iran and Syria now) is one parallel.
And there is another: today, most of you are appalled at the idea that we would be on the same side of a conflict as George Bush. But in 1936-39, if you backed the Spanish Republicans because you believed in democracy and freedom, you found yourself in the same camp as Stalin – at the peak of the Stalinist terror.
I think that socialists were right to support the Spanish Republic in its struggle for survival. And today we should support the Israeli Republic for the same reasons.
The analogy works for other reasons as well. In the Spanish Civil War, as in every war, both sides did terrible things. Many civilians were killed. Innocent blood was shed – and not only by the fascists.
Socialists did not take the view then – a plague on both your houses, victory for the third camp, etc. Socialists supported the Spanish Republic as if there was no Stalin – and opposed Stalin as if there was no civil war in Spain.
The Spanish civil war is now seen by many as a dress rehearsal for the second world war. Clearly the Germans and Italians saw it that way, and tested out their dive bombers and blitzkrieg tactics against Madrid and Guernica. Some analysts see the fight in Lebanon and Gaza today the same way – they see Islamic reactionary regimes like Iran launching a proxy war not only against Israel, but against the US, against Britain, and against the West.
I’m not sure I would push the metaphor that far. I prefer to stay with this central idea: when a democratic republic is battling for survival against the black forces of fascist reaction, socialists are tested.
Has the AWL lost its way?
If you oppose Israel in this war, as the AWL does, you have two choices and only two choices:
You can support its enemy, Hizbollah and Hamas, which is the view of the SWP, the Stop the War coalition, and others
Or – you can propose an alternative strategy for the Jewish state and its working class
If the latter, what is your strategy for Israel to survive as an independent state? What would you tell our comrade Amir Peretz to do?
I believe that you do not have an alternative strategy, and that what you are doing is talking out of both sides of your mouth, trying not to burn bridges with the various organizations like the SWP with which you have tried repeatedly to form coalitions in the past (remember the ill-fated Socialist Alliance?)
You have your principles – you support the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their own land – but you are afraid to become even more unpopular by defending that principle in the real world.
What is on the table here is an existential threat to the Jewish state, one which is recognized by the overwhelming majority of Israelis (including the peace movement) and by Jews everywhere, including here in Britain.
That existential threat comes from Iran and Syria, two states run by brutal regimes which have killed tens of thousands of their own citizens and which are both committed to the destruction of Israel. You know this. You have talked about this and written about it.
Both states have weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them (long range missiles), both have had nuclear arms programs – though Iran’s is far more advanced – and both have been waging war against Israel for decades using proxy armies (terrorist groups). You know this too.
But you choose to ignore what you know, and you refuse to act upon your principles. The Jewish state faces the threat of annihilation by Islamo-fascist organizations that have sworn to do exactly that. But you act as if this is not happening – and you call upon Israel, and only Israel, to halt its attacks.
When Serbia launched its genocidal campaign against the Kosovars, the Left was tested. Here in Britain, the AWL played a magnificent role telling the truth – and nearly alone at that. Going so far as to say that surgical strikes by Nato against Serb forces might be justified.
The Left was tested after the fall of the Saddam regime when reactionary, Baathist and Islamist forces attempted to break the back of the emerging Iraqi trade unions. The AWL stood up in defense of the elementary principle of working class solidarity – and found itself alone among the revolutionary Left organizations in doing so.
But when Hizbollah and Hamas launched unprovoked aggression against Israeli, backed by the fascists in Tehran and Damascus, you chose to participate in pro-Hizbollah demonstrations, and to produce a cowardly leaflet denouncing Israel in the headline, not even calling on Hizbollah and Hamas to stop their aggression.
It was not your finest moment, comrades.
Sometimes we take unpopular stands because we have to.
This is a critical moment for the left. We are being tested by events. We must have the courage to say what we truly believe, no matter how unpopular.
We don’t pick up new members this way, we don’t sell more newspapers this way, we don’t make friends to our “left” and we don’t build new versions of the Socialist Alliance, but this is something we must do.
Because telling the truth – even when it is unpopular — is what makes us socialists.

16 Comments on "In support of Israel: Notes for a debate"

  1. Did the AWL have the technological wherewith it all to tape or video the debate? and if so, will it be on-line shortly?

  2. No, they didn’t.

  3. left, but not antizionist | 29/07/2006 at 00:57 |

    As a social democrat from Canada, I endorse your comments 100% Eric. Well spoken.

  4. Louis Proyect | 29/07/2006 at 14:23 |

    Interesting. The AWL is widely regarded as a uncritical defender of Zionist policy. The fact that it would debate Eric Lee indicates how hated Israel has become, even among the ranks of neo-Menshevism.

  5. If you got 30 attendees, well done. That’s nearly twice as many as the last (maybe literally the last) Euston Manifesto turnout.

  6. This is an extract from a statement on the Lebanon by the US News and Letters Committees, July 19, 2006 (
    Dear Friends,
    The Israeli bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon is re-writing the politics of the Middle East and is opening a new chapter in Israel’s inhuman practice of holding tens of thousands of innocent people responsible for the actions of reactionary fundamentalists that many victims of Israeli aggression also oppose.
    There is no indication that the massive Israel assault on Gaza and on southern Lebanon will prove any more successful in “pacifying” the region than its earlier genocidal actions, which included its 1982 invasion of Lebanon which left tens of thousands dead. Just as Israel’s constant attacks since 2000 on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza made it all the easier for Hamas to gain mass support, so its attacks on Hamas and Hezbollah today are only making it easier for them to gain sympathy. That does not mean that support for those tendencies is in any way justified. Israel must be roundly condemned for its invasion of Gaza and Lebanon and pressured to stop its blitzkrieg against the populace in both areas. At the same time, we can be under no illusions about Hezbollah and Hamas. Hezbollah’s border attacks, which provided Israel with an excuse to attack Lebanon, were not only motivated by hostility toward Israel. They were also motivated by Hezbollah’s effort to gain political leverage within Lebanon, where it had been coming under criticism because of its opposition to the movement for democracy there and its alliance with reactionary Syria and Iran. Israel’s attempt to destroy as much of Lebanon as possible threatens to provide Hezbollah with the political capital it has long sought by driving many Lebanese into its arms.
    The Bush administration’s decision to give a green light to Israel’s actions is not surprising. Surely, Israel would never have undertaken such a massive attack on Lebanon without Bush’s prior approval. But this too has a logic of its own. The U.S. is bogged down in Iraq; Iran is becoming an increasingly important power player in the region; and the Syrian government will use the crisis to try to rearm its allies in Lebanon who oppose any move toward further democratization. The end result of all this may well turn out to be the strengthening of the very forces that the U.S. claimed would be swept aside once “democracy” was installed through the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
    The news of demonstrations in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities against the attacks on Gaza and Lebanon, which brought thousands into the streets, is a welcome beginning, but a beginning only. It is imperative to oppose Israel’s actions without in any way compromising our support for those who oppose BOTH imperialism and religious fundamentalism. Never has it been more important to solidarize with the forces of liberation which are aspiring for the creation of a new world on humanist foundations, in both activity and thought. We cannot allow this war between the reactionaries to divert us from that urgent perspective.

  7. What Eric says about our leaflet not calling on Hamas/Hezbollah to stop their aggression is rather disingenuous.
    The leaflet was in fact extremely critical of both groups, arguing that they had provoked the attack knowing full well what would follow, and denouncing them for not giving a fuck about their own people.
    What was most interesting in what Sean said was his suggestion that there is a “tacit alliance” between militarists on both sides – Israel right-wingers who want to assert Israel’s regional-imperialist role as against Syria, Iran etc., and Islamist terrorists, both play off each other for the sake of increasing tensions, exacerbating ethnic tensions.
    If the war is a proxy war, than Eric can’t expect us to support one side over the other. Syria/Iran are less democratic than Israel, sure, but we do not rely on regional imperialists as agents of social change.
    The AWL does not support ‘the West’ against Iraq (nor vice-versa). We fight for a working class, democratic alternative, and while not supporting the Hezbollah “resistance”, cannot rely on the agency of the Israeli government to bring even a bourgeois-democratic solution.
    Its military action will doubtless serve as a recruiting agent for Hezbollah – unless it destroys the whole Shia community, it will not break Islamism in Lebanon. Islamism has deep roots, and Israel’s hardly doing much to win Lebanese over to a democratic alternative.
    Hezbollah and Hamas are viciously reactionary, totally unworthy of any socialists’ support – but I do not think they are wholly “unprovoked”. Their support base rests on genuine economic and national grievances – just as fascists took advantage of the Depression – but, of course, their answer is terrible, anti-semitic, anti-democratic. But Israel’s policy of bantustanisation and breaking up Palestine has (and will) undoubtedly contribute to Hamas’ support. Its bombing of Lebanon will surely prove equally counter-productive.
    We call for full national rights for all peoples in the Middle East. We are not afraid to defend the existence of Israel. But when we see Israel killing so many, and indeed acting in a counter-productive way, sowing the seeds of Islamist terror, we are not forced to support its policy.
    And as for the suggestion that our politics have been guided by not wanting to alienate people on the Left…. I don’t think our opposition to Hezbollah is going to do much to win over the SWP to the Third Camp!

  8. Eric,
    I agree with your stand and every word of your argument in this lucid and important piece.
    Right up until you said this:
    “Because telling the truth – even when it is unpopular — is what makes us socialists.”
    Only socialists tell the truth? Crap. Telling the truth – especially when it is unpopular – is what makes you a decent human being.
    It has nothing to do with your views on the role of the state.
    Sorry – but I get cross when people try to lay an exclusice claim that particular part of the moral high ground.

  9. Jim Denham | 29/07/2006 at 23:12 |

    louis: You are a moron. The AWL debates Eric because his ideas are worth debating and the issues at stake are of vital importance to all the peoples of the Middle East – not because we, or anyone else “hates Isreal” (although you clearly do). As for “neo-Menshavism”: you really ought to read up on Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the national question and consistent democracy. I think you’d find their stuff a revelation.

  10. To “The Pedant-General” — I stand corrected. Everyone should tell the truth, and not only socialists.

  11. Eric,
    Thank you. Especially for taking on board the message in my – rather intemperately phrased – comment.
    If ever we needed proof that you are a better man than most of the rest of us put together, I think we have it here.
    Toodle Pip!

  12. Eric Lee says:

    What this means in practice is that while you might support a limited series of military actions by Israel today, were Israel to re-occupy Lebanon and Gaza, or deliberately target civilians as part of its strategy, or reject any possibility of a diplomatic solution – if Israel were to do any of those things, you could change your mind tomorrow.

    And this is exactly what happened to the Israeli Left in 1982: initially the Labour Party supported the invasion, and within weeks – when it became clear what Begin and Sharon were up to – changed their views.

    Well, this time what Tel Aviv-Washington was up to became clear sooner. All Tel Aviv-Washington has accomplished is to make Hizbullah wildly popular among the Lebanese:

    Angus Reid Global Scan : Polls & Research
    Lebanese Support Resistance Against Israel
    July 30, 2006

    — Many adults in Lebanon believe Hezbollah is right in fighting Israel, according to a poll by the Beirut Center for Research and Information. 86.9 per cent of respondents support the Lebanese-backed resistance against Israel.
    On Jul. 12, Hezbollah militants based in Lebanon killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two more in a cross-border attack. The Israeli armed forces launched air strikes inside Lebanese territory to fight Hezbollah, targeting the country’s infrastructure and its airport. Hezbollah has retaliated by firing rockets into several Israeli towns. 70.1 per cent of respondents agree with the capture of the two soldiers.
    The Lebanese Internal Security Forces have reported that 421 people have been killed and 1,661 have been injured. According to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), 52 Israelis — 19 civilians and 33 soldiers — have died during the conflict. In addition, 1,233 Israelis have been wounded. 63.3 per cent of respondents think Israel will never defeat Hezbollah.
    On Jul. 28, Lebanese president Emil Lahoud expressed disappointment with the situation, saying, “It makes you so mad inside. If it does to me, what about these people who have got their children, their brothers killed?” Lahoud also outlined his views on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, declaring, “All Lebanese respect him and I respect him.”
    Polling Data
    Poll highlights
    Support for the Lebanese-backed resistance against Israel
    Agreement with the capture of the two Israeli soldiers
    Belief that Israel will never defeat Hezbollah
    Source: Beirut Center for Research and Information Methodology: Interviews with 800 Lebanese citizens — Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and Christians — conducted from Jul. 24 to Jul. 26, 2006. No margin of error was provided.

  13. I think that the AWL is generally wrong on many things (and has utterly failed to adopt Barry Finger’s principled call for troops out now from Iraq) but I was pleasantly surprised that they took a courageous and nuanced stand on this issue, within the framework of a two state solution, rather than following in the footsteps of the Right.
    another social democrat in Canada

  14. I’m agree with Eric !

  15. While anyone other than an outright anti-semite would accept Israel’s right to defend itself, the question here must be whether that is what’s happening.
    I think there are two reasons why it is not.
    1. The Israeli bombing certainly is disproportionate. Much of the Lebanese civilian infrastructure has been targetted. This war is notionally about the kidnap of two soldiers, but even if we relate the Israeli action to the Hezbollah threat in general, the sledgehammer/walnut relationship remains. The argument for war rests on the notion that Hezbollah can somehow get itself into a position to destroy Israel. Surely anyone can see that this idea is a nonsense? Hezbollah is not set up to invade anyone and probably never could be. Whatever the rhetoric, their militia is set up for defence and deterrence.
    2. The war aims are unlikely to be achieved anyway. Leaving aside the huge boost to their popularity, how far would Hezbollah need to be “pushed back” or “degraded” before their rockets were out of range of Israel? The other side of Beirut? All the members killed? Who is going to enforce that? How?
    I don’t think this adventure makes sense even from the point of view of the Israeli ruling class, let alone for socialists.

  16. Eleanor | 14/08/2006 at 16:02 |

    While agreeing with most of what you say Eric, I must take issue with your comments on Yugloslavia. There can never be any justification for the Nato bombing of Serbia. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed, some of them defending their work places and cooperatives. The whole area, including the underground springs of Belgrade have been contaminated with depleted uranium and will forever be so.
    Funny that Nato targetted factories that were nationalised industries and services, leaving privatised firms safe. The national TV station was bombed because it was a socialist and progressive media source. I guess socialist Yugloslavia had become a blight on the map of the expanding, monetarist EU. That independent, socialist nation who stood up to Stalin must have seemed like a classic market imperfection left over from the cold war.
    Why were the Serbs picked out as the villains when there is clearly evidence of atrocities on all sides during the civil war? The Western media completely distorted and failed to report the terrible torture and genocide suffered by the Serbian people from the outset of the conflict. Whole villages of Serbs were wiped out. Serbs were attacked and barbarically tortured by many of the Croats and Kosovan-Albanian nationalists, some of which had sympathised with Hitler’s aims and heavily collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. The brutality of the Croatian Ustashi was so extreme that even Hitler’s SS were shocked.
    All this was not so long ago but happened in living memory. Remember that the Serbs were the only people in Europe who defeated Hitler’s forces. Jews were safe in Serbia and joined up with the the Partisans to fight.
    I suggest Eric that you read and research the history of Yugoslavia more carefully and question what you were reading in the news coverage at the time and since.
    Yugoslavia had been forged out of the liberation struggle against Nazism. A new socialist state, Yugoslavia, had emerged out of the fiery ordeal of the anti-fascist struggle under the leadership of Tito. It was the heroic partisan war waged by the communists which had welded the unity of the various nationalities and groups historically divided along ethnic and religious lines.
    The break-up, destruction of Yugoslavia and the vilification of the Serbian people is nothing less than tragic.
    History is written by the victors. If Hitler were still alive today, he would be laughing.

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