Labour Monthly

Open Letter to a Zionist-Socialist

BY British Resident

Source : Labour Monthly April 1938, No. 4. pp.244-253
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML : Salil Sen
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

Dear Comrade,

The purpose of this letter is to discuss whether, from your point of view, partition is really a satisfactory solution of the Palestine question.

It is clear in the first place that the idea of partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab State, with temporary and permanent British Mandates scattered over the points which are of most vital importance to British imperialism, corridors, harbour commissions, and what not, is repugnant to the rank and file both of Arabs and Jews. The Arab Higher Committee immediately condemned the proposals. The Iraqi Government submitted a Note to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations protesting against partition and demanding the creation of "an independent undivided Palestine which will take its place among the other Arab nations." At Zurich in August it needed all Dr. Weizmann's personal influence and powers of oratory to obtain a majority vote of 300 to 158 in favour of the motion empowering the Executive to negotiate with the British Govern¬ment with a view to discovering the precise terms for the proposed establishment of a Jewish State. And of that 300 majority the Labour minority of 60 and 9 delegates from Germany made it clear that they were opposed to the principle of partition. So it seems clear enough that, for whatever reasons, the Arab leadership and a large proportion of the Zionist leadership, in addition to the rank and file of both com¬munities, are opposed to partition.

The existence of a pocket Jewish State in the West and North of Palestine is bound to involve danger, since it will be dependent for its security on the armed protection of Britain, not on the goodwill of its Arab neighbours; and economic loss, since it will be cut off by frontiers from its natural markets in Arab Palestine and Trans-Jordan. What are the reasons which have led the Zionist leadership to accept the principles of partition in spite of this?

There is first of all the close link which has always existed between Zionism and British imperial interests. You will not deny that the Jewish National Home only came into existence because the Balfour Declaration suited Britain's war policy at that date. Since then Britain has accumulated considerable strategic and financial interests in Pales¬tine. There is Haifa and the Pipe Line in particular. There are the Potash Company and the Electric Corporation, under Jewish manage¬ment but British ownership. There are investments by British Banks and Insurance Firms (Lloyd's, the Prudential, etc.) in Jewish building and development -- estimated to amount to about £20,000,000 in all (by Mr. Clark, General Manager of Barclay's Bank in Palestine, in the Financial News of January 17, 1936). The strategic importance of Palestine increases in proportion to the increasing danger of Italian imperialism to British interests in the Mediterranean. The idea of British financial and imperial interests surely is that a small Jewish State on the sea-coast of Palestine, detached from the surrounding Arab territories, will be a useful outpost of Empire, and that any threat to Britain coming from the Arab side might be checked with the Jewish State as base. This idea of a Jewish State as a British garrison in the Near East is being advanced by too many eminent writers, both on the Zionist and the Imperialist side, to be ignored. First there was Lord Melchett in "Thy Neighbour," who pleaded that the Palestine Jews might be armed and allowed to show their loyalty. Then there was Mr. Ernest Main, of the Daily Telegraph, in "Palestine at the Cross Roads," who argued that a Zionist State could be depended upon as an ally in the Eastern Mediterranean. Now Mr. Herbert Sidebotham, of the Sunday Times, argues in "Great Britain and Palestine" that the Negeb should be included in the Jewish State, since "it is as much in British as in Jewish interest that it should be reserved for the only people which can be trusted to contend with equal vigour against the animosity of nature and the attacks of human enmity." The same idea is reflected in the increasing support for the proposal that the Jewish State should be a Dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations (e.g., in the recent resolution of the Board of Deputies of British Jews -- Jewish Chronicle, January 21, 1938).

I do not maintain that Zionism is an imperialist movement. But I do maintain that the ideals of Zionism have always been liable to exploitation in imperialist interests; that in the present dangerous situation in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Britain wants a loyal bloc in West Palestine; and that, by accepting partition, the Zionist leadership is exposing the Jewish community in Palestine to the probability of being used by Britain as front-line troops against any anti-imperialist revolt that may break out in the Arab world.

A second reason for the Zionist acceptance of partition is the belief that a sovereign Jewish state, however small in area, enjoying membership of the League of Nations, would possess bargaining power that could be usefully exercised both in respect of oppressed Jews in Europe and in relations with the Arab leaders.

If the position of the oppressed Jews in Europe could genuinely be improved by the establishment of a Jewish State, I agree that that would be an argument in its favour. But is that really so? In the recent case of the anti-Jewish legislation in Rumania, for instance, would the delegate of a Jewish State have been in a position to compel the League to take vigorous action in respect of the petition from the Rumanian Jew when Mr. Eden and M. Delbos decided otherwise? I doubt it.

On the other hand there seems no doubt that those countries which are foremost in oppressing Jews are pleased with the idea of a Jewish State, since it will emphasise the Jew's Jewishness and thus justify to the world their policy of racial exclusion, segregation and boycott. On this point M. Erlich, leader of the Bund, wrote that the creation of an independent Jewish State would only add fresh fuel to the fire of anti-Jewish hatred, whilst in reality it would never solve the Jewish problem. "The anti-Semites will now say ‘You Jews have your own country and must clear out' " (Manchester Guardian, January 21, 1937). As regards the belief that independent statehood will strengthen them against the Arab national movement, it seems unlikely that the Arabs will be deterred from continuing their struggle for a free and united Palestine by the prestige of a Jewish Government more than by the prestige of the British Government, or that they will he more ready to avoid conflict with a Jewish militia than with British regulars.

But the main planks of partition and a partitioned Jewish State are (1) that it removes the possibility of the Jews in Palestine becoming a "permanent minority"; (2) that it gives the Jews the right to control their own immigration.

Are these such definite advantages?

The reason why the idea of the Jewish community in Palestine as a permanent minority is so repulsive to Zionists is that it suggests that they will be exposed to the same sort of oppression and boycott in an independent Palestine with an Arab majority as they have been in many European countries where they are also minorities. In other words they do not trust the Arab assurances, e.g., those given by the Arab delegation at Geneva and by the Prime Minister of Iraq, Hikmat Bey Suleiman, that in an independent Palestine the existing Jewish community will have equal political rights, with the right to use the Hebrew language, school system, etc., under a democratically-elected regime.

How could the Jewish community be satisfied that these are not empty assurances, but will be executed?

(1) Guarantees could be embodied in the Treaty between Great Britain and Palestine which would replace the Mandate. By such a Treaty Palestine would in reality enjoy only partial independence during the immediate future, since it would continue to be dependent upon British protection against foreign aggression. The British Government would thus be in a position, during an interim period, to ensure that the democratic rights guaranteed to the Jewish community were in fact respected.

(2) But since, like you, I look forward to the eventual overthrow of British imperialism in the Mediterranean, as elsewhere, clearly no formal guarantee of this kind will ensure that ultimately the Palestine regime remains democratic; that there is no oppression, political subjection or economic exclusion of the Jewish community. What guarantee is there of democracy in any country other than the popular will to maintain and extend democratic institutions? And this popular will must be based on a vigorous Labour Movement. There is already an efficient Jewish trade union organisation. There are also thousands of Arab workers requiring to be organised. The coming together of these two sections of the working-class in a powerful united Labour and Trade Union Movement would, I suggest, be the only ultimate guarantee of the maintenance of democracy in Palestine.

But what about Arab Fascism and Arab terrorism and Arab agitators and the priestly junta and the feudal junta, and all the other had names that are given to the Arab national movement? Will the Arab masses ever become sufficiently politically developed to operate a democratic form of Government?

The fact is that in the course of their struggle against Britain circumstances have compelled the Arabs to adopt a democratic form of organisation. A mass struggle like the 1936 general strike cannot be carried on without a form of political machinery which gives repre¬sentation to the masses. The structure of the Arab Higher Committee, co-ordinating the activities of the National Committees in the different towns, and responsible to them, was a democratic structure, evolved to meet the demands of the struggle.

A few years ago it would have been more possible to argue that the Arab national movement was in the hands of a group of leaders. But the increasingly repressive policy of the Government -- the military raids organised against villages, huge collective fines, confiscation of crops, demolition of houses, etc. -- has necessarily had the effect of bringing the mass of the people, the peasantry in particular, into the struggle, and increasing the degree of control over the movement which the masses exercise.

It is mere wish-fulfilment if Zionists still believe that the Arab national movement is controlled by "agitators," and that a strong hand against the agitators will solve all problems. The following quotation from an article by the Egyptian correspondent in the Manchester Guardian of October 7, 1937, is relevant: "An Arab leader told me: ‘Britain is making a grave mistake if she imagines that she can suppress the Arabs by persecuting the Higher Committee and the Mufti; every Arab to-day is a potential Haj Amin Husseini.' "

If you want to admit the mass character and the democratic organisation of the Arab national movement, but point to its use of terrorism as a political method and its Fascist associations, I agree with you that these aspects exist and that they are undesirable. They are both symptoms of the relative immaturity of the Arab movement, which again is bound up with its uni-national character, and with the lack of support which it has received from the Socialist Movement in this country. Terrorism, anarchism, and nihilism are methods of action used by revolutionary movements in countries where there is no freedom of political action, and where there is not yet a fully developed popular movement. The development of a really popular struggle in Palestine is checked by the refusal of the Jewish masses to renounce their connection with British imperialism and to support the Arab movement for national independence. Even so, it is clear that terrorist action is carried on only by a very small section of the Arab people, and is organised independently of and deprecated by the Arab Higher Committee, which believes in the quite contrary policy of mass struggle. (The mere fact that members of the Committee were arrested on the grounds of "moral responsibility" for terrorist acts implies that there was no evidence of real responsibility.)

As regards the association between Fascism and the Arab movement, the position seems to be as follows:-

Italian imperialism is anxious to use the Arab national movement as a weapon in her struggle against British imperialism. The antagonism between the Arab movement and British imperialism, and the use which Britain makes of Zionism in Palestine, gives Italy an excellent opportunity to make a parallel use of the Arab movement. Italy's policy of shifting the sympathy of States hitherto friendly to Britain (or France) and the League of Nations to dependence upon the Rome-Berlin axis (a policy similar to that employed by Germany in regard to the States of the Little Entente) appears to have had some effect in the Near East. The renewal of the Treaty of Friendship between Italy and the Yemen, the free training of Nejdi youths in Italian aviation schools, the gifts of aeroplanes to Ibn Saud, connections between the Iraqi General, the late Baqir Sidqi, and Italy, Mussolini's arrogation of the title of "Defender of the Faithful," all seem good evidence of the extent of Italian intervention in Arab and Moslem countries. (For fuller evidence see Journal de Moscou of September 14, 1937.) But as far as Palestine is concerned the evidence does not amount to a great deal: the Bari broadcasts, subsidised trips to Italy by Chris¬tian Arabs resident in Palestine, alleged supply of arms by Italy to the Arabs during the 1936 Revolt, alleged subsidy to Arab newspapers, suggestions that Italy is financially implicated in the terrorist move¬ment. These allegations and suggestions may be correct. All I would argue is that there is no evidence that the Arab national movement is in any sense dominated by Italian imperialism.

Similarly with British Fascism. Plainly Mosley has been trying to cash in on the Arab Movement, and use it as a plank in his anti-Semitic platform. According to a report in Al Difa'a (a Palestine Arab newspaper), referred to in the Jewish Chronicle of January 14, 1938, Mosley has said that he fully supports the demands of the Arabs, and hopes that by 1942 he will be able to take over the Government he will then immediately abrogate all Jewish rights in Palestine. The fact is not that the Arabs are Fascists, either of the Italian or British variety, though there are a few reactionary elements to whom certain aspects of Fascism appeal -- racialism, private armies, or anti-Bolshevism. But they are engaged in a long and difficult struggle against British imperialism, in which they have not yet received serious support from the two main groups who should be their natural allies -- the Jewish working class in Palestine and the Socialist Movement in Britain. Consequently, in desperation, the more politically backward among them turn to any allies whom they can find, and hope that British Fascism or Italian imperialism may be used as an instrument against British imperialism. But so far as Italian imperialism is concerned most politically-minded Arabs have studied events in Libya and Abyssinia closely enough to realise that to give Italy any hand in Palestine would be to destroy all hopes of political freedom.

But here again the way to ensure that Fascist elements within the Arab movement do not have an opportunity to control the movement, and that the form of government eventually set up is democratic, not authoritarian, to remove any fear that a feudal junta or a priestly junta, or a military junta, may dominate -- is for the democratic forces within the Jewish community in Palestine to unite with, and so streng¬then, the democratic forces in the Arab national movement. Further, the Socialist movement in Britain should define its attitude to Palestine, making clear that it supports the Arab demand for national independence, at the same time insisting on full democratic rights for the Jewish community.

But your strongest objection to the idea of supporting the Arabs in their struggle for an independent undivided Palestine here and now will, I imagine, be that, even though a democratically controlled Government ensured a satisfactory life for the Jewish community now resident in Palestine, the possibility of using Palestine as a refuge for the oppressed Jews in Central and Eastern Europe would thereby be destroyed.

My reply to that is:-

(1) Certainly an independent Palestine Government in which Arabs were in a majority would seek to restrict further Jewish immigration for the present: the reason being that Jewish immigration, controlled by the Palestine Government, used as an instrument of British policy against the Arab liberation movement, and backed by British armed force, has come to have a purely political significance. For the last eighteen years Jewish immigrants have been brought to Palestine by Britain without Arab consent, so that Jewish immigration has become a sign of British despotism. But if once Palestine secured its independence and Jews and Arabs began to live in common citizenship, the political significance of Jewish immigration would gradually disappear. In such circumstances there would be nothing to prevent immigration of Jewish capitalists or workers, up to the limits of the real absorptive capacity of the country, provided that such immigration did nothing to interfere with the standard of life of the existing inhabitants -- Arab and Jew.

There is the further point that, once the antagonism between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine were removed, there would be no obstacle in the way of Jewish immigration into other Arab countries -- Trans-Jordan, Syria and Iraq -- the aim of whose peoples is to be linked in closer economic and political unity with one another and with Palestine, and where there is room for settlement and need of development.

(2) It is very doubtful how many more Jews the proposed Jewish State could absorb. Such factors as the political tension both inside and outside the frontier which Arab hostility to partition will provoke, the dissipation of Jewish funds and energy upon questions of security and defence, the likelihood of prohibitive tariffs being imposed by the Arab States on imports from the Jewish State, must be taken into consideration. In these circumstances there is a real danger of such a State developing into a second Ulster, spending its resources upon drums instead of butter, with the needs of the people perpetually subordinated to the issues of No Revision of Frontiers and Loyalty to the British Connection.

Apart from these considerations, the following statement by Mr. A. M. Hyamson, in a letter to the Times of August 18, 1937, deserves attention:

Advocates of Partition at the Zionist Congress have spoken somewhat airily of the new Jewish state taking one-and-a-half million, two million, Jewish immigrants, at the rate of 100,000 a year it has been suggested. But when one speaks of millions of immigrants one should realise that, ignoring the natural increase of the population, two million immigrants added to the present population of the proposed Jewish state would give a population density of about 1,250 to the square mile. The comparative figures for Great Britain are 506, England alone 750, Belgium 675, Germany 363, Poland 213, and France 197, and Palestine is mainly an agricultural country.

(3) On purely economic grounds it is doubtful whether further Jewish immigration into Palestine at the present time is in the interests either of the Jewish or the Arab communities. The boom period of 1932-35 gave way to an economic depression in the autumn of 1935, and this depression has recently intensified. According to the Economist, Commercial History of 1937, "Unemployment, which had been negligible for some years before 1936, was continuous throughout 1937, affecting some 5,000 or 6,000 men. (This would represent figures of Jewish unemployment; figures of Arab unemployment are not kept.) J. Klinow, in the Palestine Review of January 21, 1938, stated that the number of registered unemployed in Tel-Aviv had now risen to 2,200, and it was estimated that another 400 had not registered. Another 3,000 were semi-employed. So that in all 20 per cent. of the workers were short of work."

The Histadruth (the Federation of Jewish Trade Unions) has tried to combat unemployment in various ways. Work has been spread thin. According to Ha'aretz, of September 16, 1936, only 25-33 per cent. of Jewish workers were employed for more than three days a week in 1936. Wages have been reduced. According to the same issue of the Economist, Jewish wages had fallen by 11 per cent. and Arab wages by 12 per cent. compared with the autumn of 1934. A corres-pondent, writing in Jewish Life of November, 1937, says:

Formerly the Jewish agricultural worker received a dollar for a hard day's work -- barely enough to keep body and soul together. Now by the system of contractual labour, which is nothing more or less than piece¬work in manual labour (for instance, in digging a drainage ditch payment would be made by the cubic metre of displaced earth) the rates have been reduced so that all a husky young Jew can earn in 9 or 10 hours' work is 65 to 70 cents.

One final point -- and this I regard as the most important of all. The administration of Palestine as now carried on is a naked bureaucracy, maintaining itself by the operations of the armed forces and the use of terror. Used as we are to seeing these methods successfully employed by Fascist countries, that is no reason for our ceasing to protest against them when we see them employed by our own Government. As a democrat can you support a Government which, in order to carry out a policy known to be contrary to the wishes of the majority of the people whom it rules, destroys all civil liberties, and leaves the individual without protection against the arbitrary power of the State? Are you anxious to see the establishment of this partitioned Jewish State when it is plain that it can only be established by a policy of wholesale repression?

For example, the Military Courts, which have been in operation since November, 1937, and have power to try all those accused of discharging firearms, carrying arms, bombs, etc., or causing sabotage, and to punish the first two offences with death -- they are surely a gross interference with the right of every citizen to enjoy a fair trial before an independent judiciary. The sentences passed by these Courts are subject to the confirmation of the General Officer Commanding the Troops, from whose decision there is no appeal. The evil of entrusting the administration of justice to army officers, men without legal training or experience and ignorant of the habits and language of the people concerned, the opportunity thus provided for miscarriage of justice through the activity of informers and Government spies, is plain enough.

The same argument applies to the other repressive measures of the Palestine Government: the internments in concentration camps and the imposition of collective fines. The number of Arabs now in concentration camps is estimated at about one thousand, or one in every thousand of the Arab population. Among them are included religious leaders, Government officials, professional men, municipal councillors, traders, farmers, labourers and peasants. Arrests are made on the recommendation of the police or of informers. There is no form of trial, and those arrested have no opportunity to defend themselves. The District Commissioner fills in the name of the internee and his period of detention on an Arrest form in his office, and that is all. Apart from the suffering of those actually interned, severe hardship is inflicted upon the families who lose their wage-earners and for whom no provision is made.

Collective fines are a particularly barbarous form of punishment, since whole communities are thus compelled to suffer for offences in which they have not participated. A telegraph wire is cut, or shooting occurs in the neighbourhood of a town or village, and a collective fine (ranging in amount from £200 to £5,000) is imposed, to be paid within 24 or 48 hours. Men have frequently to sell their land, crops and animals, and women their jewellery to pay these fines. If the village is unable or refuses to pay, the police or troops then collect the fine in kind, removing what they can lay hands on -- money, goods, or cattle.

The issue here is a clear one. Even if partition appeared to offer fair prospects to the Jewish community inside and outside of Palestine, could you or anyone believing in the importance of maintaining democratic methods of rule honestly continue to advocate such a policy, when it is plain that it is only by methods of arbitrary arrest and im¬prisonment, by overriding civil liberties and by inflicting widespread poverty and suffering upon the Arab masses, that partition can be obtained?