Middle East: war, pogroms, and the destruction of consciousness

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According to recent polls, 87%, even 97% of Israelis supported the military onslaught on Gaza when it was at its most intense. Some held parties on the hills overlooking the Strip, drinking beer while watching the deadly firework display from afar. Some of those interviewed in the wake of Hamas rocket attacks said that the only solution is to kill all of Gaza’s inhabitants – men, women and children. The Times of Israel published a piece from an American Jewish blogger Yochanan Gordon entitled ‘When Genocide is Permissible’1 In the marches that followed the murder of the three Israeli youths on the West Bank – the event that sparked off the present conflict – the slogan “death to the Arabs” became a crowd favourite.

In Gaza, it is reported that the population subjected to the merciless Israeli bombing and shelling cheered when Hamas or Islamic Jihad unleashed a new round of rockets, intended, even if rarely with any “success”, to kill as many Israelis as possible – men, women and children. The cry “death to the Jews” can be heard once again, just like in the 1930s, and not only in Gaza, and the West Bank but also in “pro-Palestinian” demonstrations in France and Germany where synagogues and Jewish shops have been attacked. In Britain there has also been an increase in anti-Semitic incidents.

Three years ago, in the summer of 2011, in the wake of the ‘Arab spring” and the “Indignados” revolt in Spain, the slogans were very different: “Netanyahu, Assad, Mubarak, same fight” - that was the watchword of tens of thousands of Israelis who had come out onto the streets against austerity and corruption, against the chronic housing shortage and other forms of social deprivation. Tentatively, nervously, the unity of interests between impoverished Jews and impoverished Arabs was addressed in meetings that crossed the national divide and in slogans about the housing question being an issue for everyone regardless of nationality.

Today, there have been reports of small gatherings of Israelis chanting that Netanyahu and Hamas are both our enemies, but they have been surrounded, drowned out and even physically attacked by the right wing Zionists with their increasingly blatant racist appeals. Ironic fate of the Zionist dream: a “Jewish Homeland” supposed to protect Jews from persecution and pogroms has given birth to its very own Jewish pogromists, typified by gangs like Betar and the Jewish Defence League.

In 2011, speakers from the protest movement voiced the fear that the government would find an excuse to start another assault on Gaza and thus drive social protest into the dead end of nationalism. This latest conflagration, more murderous than any of the previous wars over Gaza, seems to have begun with a provocation by Hamas or possibly a separate jihadist cell – the brutal kidnap and murder of the Israeli youths. But the Israeli government, with its spectacular deployment of troops to find the youths, and the arrests of hundreds of Palestinian suspects, was only too eager to seize on the events to strike a blow against the recently formed coalition between Hamas and the PLO, and at the same time, against those who stand behind Hamas, in particular Iran, the Shia “Islamic republic” currently being wooed by the US as an ally in Iraq against the advance of the fundamentalist Sunnis grouped in ISIS. But whatever the Israeli government’s motives in “accepting” the Hamas provocation (which of course includes the constant firing of rockets into Israel), there is no question that the current upsurge in nationalism and ethnic hatred in Israel and Palestine is a deadly blow against the fledgling growth of social and class consciousness that we saw in 2011.

A Kishinev air

It being the much-trumpeted centenary of the outbreak of World War One, we are reminded of what the internationalist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote from her prison cell in the Junius Pamphlet (originally titled The crisis of social democracy) about the atmosphere of German society at the outbreak of the war. Luxemburg tells us about

the patriotic noise in the streets, the chase after the gold-coloured automobile, one false telegram after another, the wells poisoned by cholera, the Russian students heaving bombs over every railway bridge in Berlin, the French airplanes over Nuremberg, the spy hunting public running amok in the streets, the swaying crowds in the coffee shops with ear-deafening patriotic songs surging ever higher, whole city neighbourhoods transformed into mobs ready to denounce, to mistreat women, to shout hurrah and to induce delirium in themselves by means of wild rumours…. the atmosphere of ritual murder, the Kishinev air where the crossing guard is the only remaining representative of human dignity”

As a matter of fact, by the time she wrote these words, in 1915, she was making it clear that this initial nationalist euphoria had been dispersed by the growing misery of the war at home and at the front, but the point remains: the mobilisation of the population for war, the cultivation of the spirit of revenge, destroys thought, destroys morality, and creates a disgusting “Kishinev air” - the air of the pogrom. Luxemburg was referring to the pogrom in 1903 in the city of Kishinev in Tsarist Russia where Jews were slaughtered on the mediaeval pretext of the “ritual murder” of a Christian boy.

Like the feudal powers who were happy to stir up anti-Jewish riots to divert attention from popular discontent against their rule, and not infrequently to make sure that the destruction of the Jews also destroyed the large debts that kings and lords had incurred at the hand of Jewish money-lenders, the pogroms of the 20th century also have this dual characteristic of a calculated, cynical manipulation on the part of the ruling class, and the awakening of the most irrational and antisocial feelings amongst the population, most notably amongst the desperate petty bourgeoisie and the most lumpenised elements of society. In Kishinev and similar pogroms, the Tsarist regime had its Black Hundreds, gangs of street thugs ready to do the bidding of their aristocratic masters. The Nazi authorities who stirred up the horrors of Kristallnacht in 1938 presented the beatings, lootings and murders as an expression of “spontaneous popular anger” against the Jews following the assassination of the Nazi diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a Polish Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan.

The powers of the netherworld and the power of the proletariat

The imperialist powers that rule the world today continue to stoke up these kinds of irrational forces in the defence of their own sordid interests. Bin Laden began his political career as an agent of the CIA pitched against the Russians in Afghanistan. But the destruction of the Twin Towers by Bin Laden’s al Qaida provides a potent example of how these forces can easily escape the control of those who try to manipulate them. And yet the progressive weakening of the USA’s world hegemony has led it to make the same mistake in Syria, where, alongside Britain, it was happy to covertly back the radical Islamists opposing the Assad regime – until they threatened to install in Syria and now in Iraq a regime even more hostile to US interests than the rule of Assad. Even Israel, with its highly trained secret service agencies, repeated the error when it initially encouraged the growth of Hamas in Gaza as a counterweight to the PLO.

At its most advanced stage of decline, capitalism is less and able to control the forces of the netherworld that it has conjured up. A clear manifestation of this tendency is that the spirit of the pogrom is spreading across the planet. In Central Africa, in Nigeria, in Kenya, non-Muslims are massacred by Islamist fanatics, provoking counter-massacres by Christian gangs. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Sunni terrorists bomb Shia mosques and processions, while ISIS in Iraq threatens Christians and Yazidis with conversion, expulsion or death. In Burma, the Muslim minority is regularly attacked by “militant Buddhists”. In Greece, immigrants are violently attacked by fascist groups like the Golden Dawn; in Hungary, the Jobbik party rails against Jews and Roma. And in “democratic” Western Europe xenophobic campaigns against Muslims, illegal immigrants, Romanians and others have become the political norm, as in the recent European elections.

In response to the Kishinev pogrom, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, at its historic 1903 congress, passed a resolution calling on the working class and revolutionaries to oppose the threat of pogroms with all their might:

In view of the fact that movements such as the all too sadly well-known pogrom in Kishinev, quite apart from the abominable atrocities they commit, serve in the hands of the police as a means by which the latter seek to hold back the growth of class consciousness among the proletariat, the Congress recommends comrades to use all in their power to combat such movements and to explain to the proletariat the reactionary and class inspiration of anti-Semitic and all other national-chauvinist incitements”

How right was this resolution in seeing the pogrom as a direct attack on proletarian class consciousness! In 1905, faced with mass strikes and the appearance of the first workers’ soviets, the Tsarist regime unleashed the Odessa pogrom directly against the revolution. And the revolution responded no less directly: the soviets organised armed militias to defend Jewish neighbourhoods against the Black Hundreds.

Today this question is more universal and even more vital. The working class is seeing its class consciousness, its very sense of itself as a class, sapped and undermined by the relentless juggernaut of capitalist decomposition. At the social level, this decomposition of capitalist society means the struggle of each against all, the proliferation of gang rivalries, the sinister spread of ethnic, racial and religious hatreds. At the level of nation states, it means the spread of irrational military conflicts, unstable alliances, wars that both escape the control of the great powers but also drag them further into the very chaos they have created. And we are seeing in the wars in Israel/Palestine, in Iraq, in Ukraine, how the spirit of the pogrom becomes a direct adjunct of war, and threatens to turn into its ultimate avatar: genocide, the state-organised extermination of entire populations.

This sombre picture of a global society in its death agony can induce feelings of anguish and despair, especially since the hopes that sprang up in 2011 have been almost totally shattered, not only in Israel, but across the whole Middle East, which has seen protests in Libya and Syria submerged in murderous “civil wars” and Egypt’s so-called “revolution” giving rise to one repressive regime after another. And yet: these movements, above all the one in “democratic” Spain, did begin to create a perspective for the future by showing the potential of the masses when they come together in demonstrations, in assemblies, in profound debates about the direction of capitalist society and the possibility of getting rid of it. They were a sign that the proletariat is not defeated, that it has not been totally overwhelmed by the advancing putrefaction of the social order. They revived, in however confused and halting a manner, the spectre of the class struggle, of the international proletariat, which made the revolutions of 1905 and 1917-18, which put an end to the First World War with its strikes and uprisings, which blocked the road to World War Three with the renaissance of its struggles after May 1968 in France, and which has again begun to show its hand in the class movements between 2003 and 2013. The exploited class in capitalist society, realising the common interests that unite it across national, ethnic and religious barriers, is the only social force that can stand against the spirit of revenge, against the scapegoating of minorities, against national hatreds and against nation states and their endless wars.


1 It was quickly withdrawn following widespread criticism, but the fact that it could be published at all is indicative of a growing state of mind in Israel.


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