July 2010, Week 3


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Wed, 21 Jul 2010 20:47:13 -0400
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Readers Responses: July 20, 2010

1. RE: Black Labor Union Leader Sworn In (Roger Toussaint)
2. Re: Detailing the Unspoken Truths of a Deadly Relationship (Tony Michels)


RE: Black Labor Union Leader Sworn In

Kind of embarrassing that it appears that the writer is
not aware that Lee Saunders is filling the vacancy left
by the retirement of a legendary black labor leader,
Bill Lucy.

Roger Toussaint, Transport Workers Union

Re: Detailing the Unspoken Truths of a Deadly Relationship

Dear Portside moderator:

Bill Fletcher Jr.'s review of /The Unspoken Alliance:
Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South
Africa /presents a distorted account of Israel's
relationship with Africa that reflects a larger
misunderstanding of Zionism, Israel, and Jewish history
all too common on the left today.

Fletcher acknowledges that Israel consistently opposed
apartheid during the 1950 and 1960s, a period when
Israel developed extensive ties with emerging African
nations as part of a broader anti-imperialist foreign
policy.   (Israel's recognition of Communist China in
1949, for instance, won few friends in Washington.)
Fletcher might have paused to reflect on this aspect of
Israel's political history, which, as he notes, "may
surprise many readers" who, like Fletcher himself, view
Zionism as a colonial-settler project "aimed at
displacing the Palestinian people."   Why, then, did
the "dominant political forces" in Israel pursue an
anti-imperialist foreign policy?  Instead of
considering that question, Fletcher makes stock
allegations of Israel's alleged character as a racist,
apartheid, colonial-settler state.

According to Fletcher, the key to understanding
Israel's relationship with apartheid South Africa is
their shared intrinsic characters. The two countries
drew close to one another because "the two settler
states needed mutual protection."   True, Fletcher
mentions the role of certain contingent factors, such
as, the rise to power in 1977 of the right-wing Likud
party.  Yet Fletcher fails to mention at least one
crucial factor:  the sudden decision by nearly all of
Israel's erstwhile African allies to cut relations due
to economic and political pressures from Arab League
states following the 1973 war.  This development caused
damage to the Israeli left and rendered Israel bereft
of allies in Africa.  Thus, regional power politics
played an important--though not exclusive--role in
Israel's turn toward apartheid South Africa.  Israel's
connection to apartheid, although by no means unique to
Israel, deserves condemnation.  But this should be done
without resorting to dubious allegations about Israel's
essential character.

Fletcher's characterization of Israel as a colonial-
settler state is spurious.   It fails to recognize that
the Jews who settled in Palestine prior to 1948 did not
represent the economic or political interests of
England, the ruling power in Palestine.  Indeed,
despite England's qualified support for the
establishment of a Jewish homeland in 1917, England
eventually revised its policies toward Zionism in the
1930s, resulting in a conflictual relationship with the
Zionist movement by the 1940s.  Regardless of our
opinions about Zionism, this much must be recognized:
the eastern and central European Jews who came to
Palestine with the goal of establishing a Jewish
homeland (as distinct from the Jews who had, for
different reasons, lived in Palestine for centuries)
did not do so as agents of any imperial power.  Neither
Russia, Poland, Roumania, Austria, Hungary, nor Germany
possessed imperial interests in the Middle East.  If
they had, they surely would not have entrusted them to
the Jews!  Jews came to Palestine primarily as a result
of escalating cycles of violence, legal discrimination,
and economic impoverishment.  Furthermore, persecution
of Jews was not limited to Europe, contrary to what
Fletcher implies.  The hundreds of thousands of Jews
who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries after 1948
fled mob violence and state actions against them. It is
morally callous, at best, and cruel, at worst, to liken
European and Middle Eastern Jews fleeing persecution to
white South Africans bent on subjugating blacks.

To suggest, as Fletcher does, that the history of
Jewish persecution is nothing but a device (the
"official Israeli narrative") used by the Israeli
government to bolster its standing is reprehensible.
(Not incidentally, this same theme is heard frequently
on the anti-semitic far-right.)  Does Fletcher mean to
say that anti-semitism should be ignored because to
discuss it somehow contributes to the oppression of
Palestinians?  If so, he ought to say so explicitly. If
not, then he should repudiate this dangerous idea and
clarify what he means to say.  Here it is worth noting
that most of the American left in the 1940s, 1950s, and
1960s maintained a much different interpretation of
Zionism and Israel. That was not because the post-war
left was beholden to the Israeli propaganda machine.
Rather, it was because leftists had reached a realistic
understanding of Jewish national aspirations out of a
sense of solidarity, internationalism, moral
sensitivity, and intellectual complexity.

A final note regarding Fletcher's mis-characterization
of Zionism's aims.   Zionism's dominant political
forces--which belonged to the various parties of the
socialist left--did not aim to displace the Palestinian
population, as Fletcher claims.  They believed that
Jewish national goals (defined differently, depending
on the party) could be achieved without harming the
economic, political, and national interests of the
Palestinians.  Indeed, many Zionists believed that the
two could be fulfilled together.  The Marxist-Zionist
youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, for instance, called
for the creation of a bi-national, Jewish-Arab state.
Arab political leaders always rejected this position
out of hand.  They viewed it as a ruse and, in any
case, rejected the idea that Jews should possess any
form of political sovereignty in any part of Palestine.
It bears mentioning that the Zionist movement
officially accepted the creation of a Palestinian Arab
state side-by-side with a small Jewish one (albeit one
with a large Arab minority) in 1937 when proposed by
England and in 1947-48 when proposed by the United
Nations (with staunch support from the USSR and
hesitant support from the US). Again, Arab leaders
rejected both proposals.  All of this is a well-known
matter of historical record, but it is lost on

I'll leave aside Fletcher's allegation that Israel
constitutes an apartheid state.  The Arab-Israeli legal
scholar, Mohammed Wattad, offers a cogent opposing
view.  Wattad strongly rejects the comparison between
Israel and apartheid South Africa, even while he
criticizes discrimination against Israeli Arabs. In
other words, Wattad presents an appropriately nuanced
understanding of Israel from which Fletcher might

Tony Michels 
Associate Professor of History 
University of Wisconsin, Madison


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