Tony Cliff

The Middle East at the Crossroads



II. The Role of Zionism

Tony Cliff, Middle East – The Role of Zionism, Fourth International, Vol.7 No.1, January 1946.
Tony Cliff, Imperialism in the Middle East, Workers International News, Vol.6 No.4, January 1946.
Part II of Tony Cliff, Middle East at the Crossroads, London 1946.
Translated from Hebrew by R. Bod.
Transcribed by David Walters.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Following is the second section of an extensive survey of the present situation in the Middle East, written by a Palestinian Trotskyist. The first section appeared in the December issue of Fourth International. The concluding section will be published in the February issue. The translation is by R. Bod.

According to the number of communal riots one may determine the number of days that imperialism and its agents in the colonies have to live. For decades, therefore, French imperialism has caused serious friction between the Christians and Moslems in Syria and Lebanon. British imperialism between Moslems and Copts in Egypt, Arabs and Assyrians in Iraq. For this reason Zionism was supported in Palestine as a force against the Arab national movement.

At the end of the second world war, however, the problems confronting British imperialism become much more difficult. On the one hand Britain is interested in pushing France aside in Syria and Lebanon and cannot therefore accept with pleasure communal friction between Moslems and Christians, as this can only help to strengthen the position of France which leans upon the Christian minority. On the other hand Britain is interested in putting stumbling blocks in the way of American penetration into the Middle East, and therefore cannot look favourably upon the disputes between “independent” Arab rulers and “independent” Arab states, as it is interested in building a united front of reactionary kings and ministers – hence the Arab League.

Moreover the endeavour of imperialism to incite communal friction between Moslems and Copts in Egypt failed dismally (for reasons which cannot here be dwelt upon). And seeing that Egypt is the weakest link in the imperialist chain of the Middle East as social antagonisms are the deepest there, Britain’s difficulties in diverting the attention of the masses to chauvinistic aims are very great. British imperialism must therefore solve a very grave problem: how to keep a unity of all the Arab countries-a unity, of course, whose aims and limits are determined by Britain-and to preserve the peace between the different communities of the Arab people on the one hand, and on the other to carry out its policy of “divide and rule” in its most extreme form.

Here imperialism calls to mind a weapon which it has used for more than twenty years to subjugate the population of one of the Arab countries and which it now desires for much larger-scale purposes.




Zionism occupies a special place in imperialist fortifications. It plays a double role: first directly as an important pillar of imperialism, giving it active support and opposing the liberation struggle of the Arab nation, and second as a passive servant behind which imperialism can hide and towards which it can direct the ire of the Arab masses.

In Tel Aviv which has 250,000 inhabitants there is not one Arab worker, if a rumour that there are three Arabs working in a Jewish cafe is enough to bring a crowd of thousands to the spot to smash the windows and break the furniture, if an Arab fellah who dared, before the war, to come and sell his products in the Jewish market was subjected to beatings, spoliation of his products, etc. (during the war such occurrences were not customary nor are so today as there was and still is a scarcity of products), if at one stroke twenty villages in the Jezreel valley were wiped out when the land was bought from a Syrian banker, Sursuk, if thousands of evicted peasants were prohibited from looking for work as wage labourers on the land on which their families had toiled for generations, if there were constant “purges” of Arabs from the economy, so strongly reminiscent of the “purges” practised by the Nazis against the Jews from 1933-39, if from such “innocent” acts the Zionists pass over to speaking about making Palestine a Jewish State and expelling all the Arabs from the country – then is there any wonder that the Arabs oppose Zionism to the very death?

Zionism frees imperialism from the responsibility for any act of spoliation and oppression. Let us look at a few examples. An English Electric Company which builds an enterprise in Palestine nominates a Jew as general manager. The result is that while in every colony a struggle having an anti-imperialist character is being conducted – with strikes, demonstrations and boycotts – against the foreign concessionary companies, in Palestine the boycott declared by the Arabs against the Palestine Electric Company wears another guise – anti-Jewish demonstrations. In this way the Zionists, who for propaganda’s sake declare the key positions of the economy to be in their hands, although they are merely junior partners or even only managers, help imperialism to suck the blood of the country.

Another example will make this even clearer. While in Syria and Lebanon there were demonstrations, even bloody ones, which were crowned with victory, against the establishment of the Steel Bros. truck company there, in Palestine the “Socialist” Zionists, the General Federation of Jewish Labour (Histadrut) put themselves, for some petty recompense, at the service of Steel Bros. and assured the company’s firmly planting itself in the country.

In Palestine there is one policeman or ghaffir (special policeman) for every 100 inhabitants as against one for every 676 in England. The police budget in Palestine accounted for 27 per cent of the 1941-42 budget (excluding public works undertaken for police purposes, such as the building of police stations, etc.) as against 0.3 per cent in England in 1942-43. Such a tremendous police force is not – God forbid – intended to serve imperialism. No, it was Zionism which for years insisted on increasing the police force, insisted on the reign of order and a strong hand against the Arabs!

If the health and education budgets together do not make up 1.65 of the police budget (in England they are five times larger than the latter) then the Zionists by no means protest against this but instead make a great ado over the fact that the government distributes the education budget to Jews and Arabs proportionally to the number of children in the two communities. Instead they demand that the government give a greater part of the budget to the Jews, as they pay more taxes (being richer). This is demanded even by those Zionists who call themselves socialist! Imperialism is thus freed from responsibility for the widespread illiteracy and bad health conditions prevailing in the country.

Imperialism does not have to shoulder the responsibility for the fact that the big foreign companies and the big capitalists and landowners, Jewish or Arab, practically do not pay taxes. All the Zionists, from right to extreme “left,” oppose the income tax, as this will harm Zionist construction.

In Palestine there are even no minimal laws for the protection of tenants. Neither Arab landowners nor the government need take responsibility for this either. On the contrary, the government from time to time, in order to appear as the benefactor, states a desire for laws for the protection of tenants and even maps out schemes for agricultural development. Again it is the Zionists who oppose any such laws and schemes, on the grounds that it will harm Zionist colonisation which requires the eviction of tenants.

If in Palestine there is a completely autocratic regime without any parliament or even any elected representative body, imperialism again evades all responsibility very easily: the Zionists oppose the setting up of any such democratic institution, again as it will hinder Zionist expansion.

If the British army during the years 1936-39 killed thousands of Arab partisans (in the same way as Italians killed Abyssinians, or the Japanese, Dutch and British the Javanese today) it did not do so in order to maintain its position-God forbid! – but to protect the Jews! [1]

It is a tragedy that the sons of the very people which has been persecuted and massacred in such a bestial fashion, and which today is the unprovoking victim of national hatred – of fascism, the highest form of imperialism – should itself be driven into a chauvinistic, militaristic fervour, and become the blind tool of imperialism in subjugating the Arab masses. In the same way that the existing social order is to be blamed for the calamity of the Jews, so is it to be blamed for the exploitation of their catastrophe for reactionary, oppressive aims.

Zionism does not redeem Jewry from suffering. On the contrary, it imperils them with a new danger, that of being a buffer between imperialism and the national and social liberation struggle of the Arab masses.

The recent Zionist terror appears to cast the above estimation of the relation between Zionism and imperialism into doubt. If the Zionists struggle today against the British government, is that not proof that it follows an anti-imperialist policy?

Zionism and imperialism have both common and antagonistic interests. Zionism wants to build a strong Jewish capitalist state. Imperialism is indeed interested in the existence of a capitalist Jewish society enveloped by the hatred of colonial masses, but not in order that Zionism should become too strong a factor. So far as this is concerned, it is ready to prove its “fairness” towards the Arabs, and its readiness to give in to their just demands at the expense of Zionism. In order to gain the service of the Zionists as direct supporters in any anti-imperialist insurrection, and what is even more important, as a buffer, imperialism does not necessarily have to let Zionism flourish. A Zionist population of six hundred thousand can satisfactorily enough fulfil such a task.



Can Zionism Be anti-imperialist?

Imperialism can safely draw its plans either to widen the bounds for Zionist development or restrict them, but it need suffer no doubt about one thing: that whatever happens during an uprising of the people of the East against imperialism, Zionism will not go over to the revolutionary side. This is clearly revealed in all the activities and declarations of the most active terroristic organisation in Palestine – the National Military Organisation. In one of its pamphlets In Memory of D. Raziel it wrote:

We must fight the Arabs in order to subjugate them and weaken their demands. We must take them off the arena as a political factor. This struggle against the Arabs will encourage the diaspora and consolidate it. It will draw the attention of the nations of the world which will be compelled to honour the people which struggles with its arms. And an ally will be found which will support the peoples’ army in its struggle. (May 1943)

It is true that the Zionists are not satisfied with the fact that it is not they who fix the limits for co-operation between Zionism and imperialism but the latter who does so. Nevertheless even in the days of the greatest strain in the relations between them and the British government they never stopped saying that the interests of Zionism do not go against the interests of imperialism.

Thus, for instance, one of the members of the Jewish Agency wrote a few days before the great terrorist acts of November 2 (the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration):

One of the bad principles of the traditional system (of British policy – T.C.) is that the British authorities compromise only with the one who knows how to disturb and to break their peace while these authorities are accustomed to treat lightly and to betray a faithful, patient and peaceful ally. If this is the way to win the alliance of Britain, we cannot avoid trying to follow this path, as we are very interested in Britain’s alliance with us. We cannot long maintain this one-sided alliance in the place of a mutual alliance. The Yishuv (Jewish population in Palestine – T.C.) does not intend to expel the British from the country and be their heirs. We do not see any contradiction whatsoever between mass immigration, a Jewish state, and wide and strong British bases in this country. On the contrary, we shall look upon it very favourably. (Dr. Y. Sneb, Concerning the Essence of the Crisis, Ha’aretz, October 26, 1945.)

The same theme is harped upon interminably day after day. It is interesting that even when imperialism reveals its great desire to use the Jews as scapegoats, the theme does not change. The arms trials of the last two years have been clear proof of the provocative intentions of imperialism. For many years now thousands of Arabs have been arrested without trial, and every Arab found with arms during the national uprising of 1936-39 was condemned to death or at least to long imprisonment. The Zionists did not utter a word of protest against this so that the ire of the oppressed Arab masses was vented against the Jews.

Then an attempt was made to complete the provocation: Jews in possession of arms were publicly tried. In the whole East the Arab papers began to write that the Zionists were arming against the Arabs and England was the protectress of the Arabs. But of course the Zionists did not say that the arms trials of the last two years were only a link in the chain of the imperialist policy of “divide and rule.”

Even at this hour they did everything to prove that they were not the enemies of imperialism but on the contrary its allies. Thus, for instance, in the arms trial that took place on November 28, 1944, Epstein, a member of Hashomer Hatzair, the “Revolutionary Socialist” Zionist party, said to the judges:

You who come from England will surely know how to appreciate the difficulties and dangers involved in development and colonisation undertakings in backward countries. No colonising undertakings in the history of mankind have taken place without being met by the hatred of the natives. Years, and sometimes generations pass till these men (the natives – T.C.) become capable of appreciating and understanding the blessing inherent in the undertaking also for their future. But the British people did not recoil from developing these backward countries (imperialist conquest – i.e. “development” – T.C.) knowing that by doing so you were fulfilling an historical and humanitarian mission. The best of your sons you sacrificed on the altar of progress (what did the petroleum companies get for this? – T.C.).

If the Zionists are not anti-imperialist (and of course to be against the Arab people and imperialism at one and the same time is impossible), then why all these terroristic acts? The answer is simple. The Zionists have come into a blind alley. The victory of the proletariat of the West and the masses of the East will put an end to Zionist dreams. The continuation of the existing social regime makes every little people into a puppet in the hands of big imperialist powers. This is especially true as regards the Jews of Palestine whose relations with their neighbours are very strained.

If imperialism continues to rule over the world, then whatever the Jews do they are doomed. If the world revolutionary wave rises to the heights, then all the weak peoples, including world Jewry, will be saved. But the Jews of Palestine in their special position can be saved only if they cease to be buffers between the national and social liberation struggle of the Arab masses. The Jewish capitalists of Palestine as a class are doomed whatever happens. They are therefore incapable of anything except blind adventurism based on belief in miracles or at best a struggle to hold out a little longer.

The best prospect the Zionists can hope for is that Britain will give them a Jewish State, even though a pocket state in a small part of tiny Palestine. They think that the partition plan for Palestine can suit the interests of British imperialism under certain conditions. Such a plan will ensure the existence of two irridentist movements, a sharp Zionist struggle for every place of work and foot of ground in the Jewish State, and economic weakness of the mutilated Arab state. These are the pros of the plan from the standpoint of imperialism.

The Zionists base their calculations on this factor and on one other. It is true that the position of Zionism in the struggle between the colonial people and imperialism is predetermined, and it will not change no matter how imperialism behaves, but its place in the struggle between the different

imperialist Powers is not predetermined. Ben-Gurion and Weizmann can be American agents with the same enthusiasm as they have been British agents for nearly thirty years. The recent Zionist terror was intended to threaten Britain with the possibility of a Zionist switchover to America, and at the same time to make it easier for the British politicians, if they so desire, to permit the construction of a Jewish State in spite of Arab opposition. (They would be able to say to the Arabs that there was a material and moral necessity to give in somewhat to the Zionists.)

Even if this “solution” is arrived at – which is far from being certain – it will be only a temporary, short-lived postponement of Zionism’s burial. The Jews of Palestine and the Arabs will only be involved by this plan in terrible sacrifices, clashes and bloodshed. The only real solution for the Jewish workers of Palestine is to bridge the gulf between themselves and the tens of millions of Eastern peoples by renouncing Zionist dreams of domination.

The latest terroristic acts-the blowing up of the railways done with the full collaboration of all the Zionist military organisations (Hagana, National Military Organisation, and Stern group) – in reality did not harm imperialism but instead served it very well. They intended to “compel” the British government to open the gates of Palestine to Zionist immigration and colonisation despite the opposition of the Arab inhabitants of the country and those of neighbouring countries (the former having discovered the true face of Zionism from first hand, and the latter learning from them). It therefore only added fuel to the fire of the Arab-Jewish hatred. The bombardment of the railways on the eve of November 2 was an excellent weapon in the hands of British agents for the organisation of pogroms in Cairo, Alexandria and Tripoli.



The fate of the Assyrians – a precedent and a warning

The rank and file Zionists are misled by their leaders into believing that they are not simply puppets motivated by imperialism for its benefit and their harm. Such things have many precedents in the history of the bloody domination of imperialism over the East. The most characteristic example, miniature but illuminating, of imperialism’s technique, is the use that Britain made of the Assyrians. As this teaches much, it warrants recounting in some detail.

The Assyrians are a Semite Christian tribe who speak an Aramaic dialect. Before the first world war they numbered about forty thousands and inhabited the Hakari Mountains in Turkey, north-east of the present Iraqi border. At the outbreak of the first world war the Hakari Mountains acquired great strategic importance since it was on the border of Turkey, Russia and Persia. Russian officers came to incite the Assyrians to fight against Turkey promising them an independent state of their own. This promise was affirmed by the British officer, Capt. Gracey of the Intelligence Service, who came for this special purpose to the Hakari Mountains, and other liberal offers were made to the Assyrians by British and Russian emissaries.

The Assyrians were won over into believing in the possibility of the revival of their ancient empire. Their dreams became more and more aggrandised until they were imbued with the hope of setting up an independent kingdom from their mountains right up to Kifri, which is south of Kirkuka region mainly inhabited by another people, the Kurds. On May 10, 1915, the Assyrians declared war on Turkey. The League of Nations reports about this:

There is no doubt that this people rose in armed revolt against its lawful government at the instigation of foreigners and without any provocation on the part of the Turkish authorities. It is also established that the conditions of life enjoyed by the Assyrian people within the Ottoman Empire were rather better than those of the other Christians, since they were conceded a fairly wide measure of local autonomy under the authority of the patriarchal house. (League Report, p.83, from Toynbee, The Islamic World Since the Peace Conference, 1927, pp.483-4.)

Malek, an Assyrian who wrote a damning book against the English, called The Betrayal of the Assyrians (1935), writes: “They (the Assyrians) were welcomed also in Turkey for the last two thousand years and were able to preserve their church and people as a national entity, until they were used by the British authorities as a military force” (p.61).

From this point begins the chapter of their wanderings and terrible sufferings. For years the Assyrians fought an unequal fight against the Turkish army, were cast out of their homeland in the course of the fighting, but continued to fight side by side with the British army. With the conquest of Iraq, the British conscripted military troops from among the Assyrians, as they did not succeed in getting Arabs. At the close of the war there were tribal uprisings in Iraq which Britain needed much manpower and money to crush. (It cost the British taxpayer about 80 million pounds to suppress the 1919-20 revolt.) In this undertaking the British made excellent use of the services of the Assyrians.

The Assyrians continued to be a plaything in the hands of the British in the latter’s struggle against the Turks, Kurds (who inhabit Mosul which is so rich in petroleum), and the Arab inhabitants of Iraq who sought the independence of their country from imperialism. As Dr. W.A. Wigram, who knew the situation of the Assyrians from first hand, said: “By the admission of the then High Commissioner it was the Assyrian force which saved the swamping of our rule in the Arab revolt of 1920 (Sir A. Wilson, Mesopotamia, p.291) and they who (as the C.O. in the field, Colonel Cameron, declared) rolled back the Turkish invasion of Iraq in 1922-23 ... But this very fact caused the Iraqis to hate them” (RCAS, Vol.II, Jan. 1934, p.38-41).

Thus British imperialism brought it about that the Assyrians were expelled from Turkey, fulfilled an important task in the cruel suppression of the Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, and were therefore surrounded on all sides by bitter animosity. In this way they came to be more attached to, and dependent upon British imperialism. B.S. Stafford, in The Tragedy of the Assyrians could rightly state that the question of the Assyrians was not a religious but a political question pure and simple.

The Arabs and Kurds in Iraq believed that Britain’s intentions were to set up an armed conclave in the north of the country. Articles and speeches were publicised in the Iraqi parliament saying that it was Britain who had instigated friction in Iraq. Her calling for the defence of the Assyrians had immersed Iraq in complications solely for her own purposes, and she now wished to create an autonomous Assyrian state in the north of Iraq, i.e., she wanted to create in Iraq a second Zionist problem.

In 1930 the mandate over Iraq ended. This gave an independence to Iraq, which was, however, purely formal, as Britain’s control over the oilfields, three aerodromes, etc., remained. It nevertheless made the conscription of Assyrians for British needs superfluous as now, instead of mass land forces, Britain based herself mainly on the air force. But Britain still had one use for the Assyrians – to let them be themselves massacred as scapegoats.

With the declaration of the abolition of the mandate, the Assyrians turned to Britain with a strong request to be discharged from the army in order to annul the doubts and fears of the Iraqis that they might be used to damage the integrity and independence of Iraq. But Sir Francis Humphreys, the British High Commissioner, attempted to postpone the matter by all possible means, saying that the League of Nations had to look into the matter, and so on. He threatened that if the Assyrians were discharged they would not be used in any government service in the future. Sir Francis succeeded in doing as he wished.

When anti-British articles began appearing in the Iraqi papers, the British Embassy intervened, and some papers were banned. But when propaganda began to appear that the main task of the Iraqis was to fight against the Assyrians, and that Britain was the enemy of Iraq because she defended them, then the British Embassy remained silent. This served to encourage all the black elements, the clergy and the feudal reaction, to hasten their preparations for a crusade against the Assyrians, the blind victims of imperialism.

The result of the British policy for seventeen years now produced its fruits. There were terrible riots against the Assyrians, under the command of Iraqi authorities and with the participation of the army. British aircraft flew above the region of the massacres and took photographs, but brought no help to the victims.

After the riots Britain called to mind again her promise to establish a large independent Assyrian state, and decided that the time had come to permit the Assyrians to settle in a continuous stretch of land, however small. Plan after plan sprang up for the settlement of the Assyrians (in Brazil, Guiana, etc.), but all were rejected except one, which was to settle them in Syria, in the region of Latakia. A program was decided on to settle 30 thousand people, which would cost 1,140,000 pounds. Of this sum, according to the agreement, Britain was to pay 250,000 pounds, Iraq 250,000 pounds, France 380,000 pounds and the League of Nations 80,000 pounds. A source for the remaining 180,000 pounds was not found, and so the settlement was held up.

The Archbishop of Canterbury on February 11, 1936 asked the government in the House of Lords how it intended finally to settle the question of the Assyrians, which in his opinion, lay like a heavy burden on the conscience of the countries who were parties to the agreement in general, and England in particular, and even pledged himself to get part of the sum lacking for the execution of the plan of settlement by an appeal to the British people. Lord Stanhope replied on behalf of the government: “The government hoped for volunteering from other sources after it had contributed 250,000 pounds, and had influenced Iraq to make her contribution double her first offer bringing it up to 250,000 pounds. The government could not add to its contribution, and it would not support the Archbishop’s appeal.” What, after all, do the Assyrians expect of unfortunate British imperialism, which makes millions every year from the oilfields which were defended for it by the Assyrians?

And the final result of all these grand settlement plans was that nine thousand Assyrians succeeded in settling in Syria on the Syria-Iraqi border in the region of Jezira!

(To be continued)



1. It is interesting to observe that the English companies active Palestine do everything possible to accommodate themselves to the Arab-Jewish antagonism, and to increase it. Thus, for instance, the Anglo-American Tobacco Company has intentionally built two separate enterprises. One in Tel Aviv (Maspero) supplies the Jewish market, employs Jewish workers, and sells under the slogan “Buy 100 percent Jewish products”. The other (Karaman, Dick & Salti) supplies the Arab market, employs 500 Arab workers and works under the guise of an Arab national enterprise. Thus, for instance, it combined the sale of its cigarettes with propaganda against the selling of land to the Jews.


Last updated on 29.10.2005