Bilan & the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine

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The following articles were originally published in 1936 in issues 31 and 32 of Bilan, the organ of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left. The Fraction was obliged to outline the marxist position on the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine following the Arab general strike against Jewish immigration, which had degenerated into a series of bloody pogroms. Although a number of the specificities of the situation have since changed, what is striking about these articles is how profoundly applicable they are to the situation in the same region today. In particular, they demonstrate with a great deal of precision how the ‘national’ movements of both Jews and Arabs, though engendered by a real experience of oppression and persecution, had become inextricably entangled with the clash of rival imperialisms; and by the same token, how both were being used to obscure the shared class interests of Jewish and Arab proletarians, driving them into mutual slaughter for the interests of their exploiters. The articles thus demonstrate that:

  • the Zionist movement only became a realistic project once it had received the backing of British imperialism, which was seeking to create what it called “a little loyal Ulster” in the Middle East, a zone of increasing strategic importance since the development of the oil industry;

  • Britain, while backing the Zionist project, was also playing a dual game. It had to reckon with a huge Arab/Muslim component in its colonial empire; and it had made cynical use of Arab national aspirations during the First World War, when its main concern had been to finish off the crumbling Ottoman empire. It had therefore made all kinds of promises to the Arab population of Palestine and the rest of the region. This classic policy of ‘divide and rule’ had a double aim: to balance out the conflicting national and imperialist aspirations in the areas under its domination, while at the same time keeping the exploited masses of the region from recognising their common material interests;

  • The Arab ‘liberation movement’, though opposed to British support for Zionism, was thus by no means anti-imperialist – any more than were those elements within Zionism who were already turning to military action against the British. Both nationalist movements operated entirely inside the overall imperialist game. If a nationalist faction turned against its former imperialist backers, it could only seek support from another. By the time of the Israeli war of Independence in 1948, virtually the whole Zionist movement had become openly anti-British, but in doing so had already become a tool of the newly triumphant American imperialism, which was willing to use any instrument at hand to thrust aside the old colonial empires. Similarly, Bilan shows that when Arab nationalism entered into open conflict with the British, this merely opened the door to the ambitions of Italian (and also German) imperialism; and from our vantage point, we can see that the Palestinian bourgeoisie would later turn to the Russian bloc, and then France and other European powers, in its conflicts with the USA.

The principal changes that have come about since these articles were written, of course, is that Zionism succeeded in establishing its state, which fundamentally shifted the balance of forces in the region; and the leading imperialist power in the region is no longer Britain but the US. But even here the essence remains the same: the establishment of the state of Israel, which resulted in the expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinians, only brought to its culminating point the tendency towards the expropriation of the Palestinian peasants which, as Bilan had noted was inherent in the Zionist project; and the USA, is itself compelled to maintain a contradictory balance between its support for the Zionist state on the one hand, and the necessity to keep as much as possible of the ‘Arab world’ under its influence on the other. Meanwhile the USA’s rivals continue to make whatever they can of the USA’s difficulties in keeping all these balls in the air at the same time.

Most relevant of all is Bilan’s clear denunciation of the way that both Arab and Jewish chauvinism was used to keep the workers at each others’ throats; in spite, indeed because of this, the Italian Fraction refused to make any compromise in its defence of authentic internationalism: “For real revolutionaries, naturally, there is no ‘Palestinian question’, but only the struggle of all the exploited of the Near east, Arabs and Jews included, which is part of the more general struggle of the all the exploited of the entire world for the communist revolution”. It thus totally rejected the Stalinist policy of supporting Arab nationalism as an alleged means of combating imperialism. The policies of the Stalinist parties of the day are now carried on by the Trotskyists and other leftists, who make themselves the mouthpieces of the ‘Palestinian Resistance’. These positions are as counter-revolutionary today as they were in 1936.

Today, when the masses of both sides are more than ever being whipped up into frenzy of mutual hatred, as the toll of massacre rises way beyond the levels reached in the 1930s, intransigent internationalism remains the only antidote to the nationalist poison.


Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine (part 1)

The aggravation of the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine, the accentuation of the anti-British orientation of the Arab world, which during the world war was a pawn of British imperialism, has induced us to consider the Jewish problem and that of the pan-Arab nationalist movement. Here we will try to treat the first of these two problems.

After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the dispersion of the Jewish people, the different countries where they came from, when they weren't expelled from their territories (less for the religious reasons invoked by the Catholic authorities than for economic reasons, notably the confiscation of their goods and the annulment of their credit), in regulating their conditions of life after the Papal Bull in the mid-16th century, which was the rule in every country, obliged them to live confined in closed quarters and obliged them to wear the infamous insignia.

Expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1394, they emigrated to Germany, Italy and Poland; expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1498, they took refuge in Holland, Italy and above all in the Ottoman Empire which then occupied north Africa and the greater part of south east Europe; there they formed, and even form today, this community talking a Jewish-Spanish dialect, whereas those emigrants in Poland, Russia, Hungary, etc., talk the Jewish-German dialect (Yiddish). The Hebrew language, which during this epoch remains the language of the Rabbis, was drawn out from the domain of dead languages to become the language of the Jews in Palestine with the present nationalist Jewish movement.

While the Jews of the west, the least numerous, and partially those of the United States, acquired an economic and political influence through their weight on the money markets and their intellectual weight through the number of them found in the liberal professions, the great masses were concentrated in eastern Europe and already, at the end of the 18th century, grouped 80 percent of the European Jews. Through the first departure from Poland and the annexation of Bessarabia (area around Ukraine - trans.), they came under the domination of the Czars who, at the beginning of the 19th century, had the two layers of Jews on their territories. From the beginning, the Russian government adopted a repressive policy dating from Catherine II and this found its cruellest expression under Alexander III who envisaged the solution to the Jewish problem in the following way: a third must be converted, a third must emigrate and a third must be exterminated. They were confined to a certain number of districts of the north-west provinces (White Russia), of the south-east (Ukraine and Bessarabia) and in Poland. They could not live outside of the towns and above all they could not live in the industrial areas (mining and metal working regions). But it's above all amongst the Jews who made a way for themselves in the penetration of capitalism in the 19th century and that determined a differentiation of the classes.

It was the pressure of Russian governmental terrorism which gave the first impulsion to Palestinian colonisation. However the first Jews had already returned to Palestine following expulsion from Spain at the end of the 15th century and the first agricultural colony was constituted close to Jaffa in 1870. But the first serious immigration only began after 1880, when police persecution and the first pogroms led to emmigration towards America and Palestine.

This first "Alya" (Jewish immigration) of 1882, the so-called "Biluimes", was mostly composed of Russian students who could be considered as the pioneers of Jewish colonisation in Palestine. The second "Alya" happened in 1904-05 as a repercussion of the crushing of the first revolution in Russia. The number of Jews established in Palestine which was some 12,000 in 1850, rose to 35,000 in 1882 and to 90,000 in 1914.

These were all Jews from Russia and Romania, intellectuals and proletarians, because the Jewish capitalists of the west, like the Rothschild's and the Hirsch's, limited themselves to a financial support which gave them a benevolent reputation as philanthropists, without it being necessary for them to give up their precious persons.

Among the "Biluimes" of 1882, the socialists were still few in number and that because in the controversy of the time it was a question of going towards Palestine or America and they were for the latter. In the first Jewish emigration to the United States, the socialists were thus very numerous and so this constitutes a good time for organisations, journals and even attempts at communist colonisation.

The second time that the question of seeing where Jewish immigration was leading was posed, as we have said, after the defeat of the first Russian revolution and following the aggravation of the pogroms characterised by those of Kitchinew (Chisinau, Moldavia - trans.).

The Zionism which attempted to assure the Jewish people a place in Palestine and which had just set up a National Fund for acquiring territory, was, at the time of the 7th Zionist Congress in Basle, divided between the traditionalist current which remained faithful to the constitution of the Jewish state in Palestine and the territorialists who were for colonisation elsewhere and, concretely, in Uganda which was offered by the British.

Alone a minority of socialist Jews, the Poales Zionists of Ber Borochov, remained faithful to the traditionalists, all the other Jewish socialist parties at the time, as the Zionist Socialists (S.S.) and the Serpistes - a sort of reproduction in the Jewish milieu of the Russian Social-Revolutionaries - declared themselves for territorialism. The oldest and the most powerful Jewish organisation of the time, the Bund, was, as we know, quite negative on the subject of the national question, at least in this period.

A decisive moment for the movement for national renaissance was opened with the world war of 1914. After the occupation of Palestine by British troops, to which the Jewish Legion of Jabotinsky rallied, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was promulgated which promised the constitution of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.

This promise was given its assent at the San Remo Conference of 1920 which put Palestine under British mandate.

The Balfour declaration led to a third "Alya" but it was above all the fourth, the most numerous, which coincided with the remit of the Palestinian mandate to Britain. This "Alya" already involved quite numerous layers of petty-bourgeois. We know that the latest immigration in Palestine which followed the rise of Hitler to power and which is certainly the most important already contained a strong percentage of capitalists.

If the first census made in 1922 in Palestine had regard to the ravages of the world war, only registering 84,000 Jews, 11% of the total population, that of 1931 already registered 175,000 of them. In 1934, the statistics give 307,000 out of a total population of one million, one hundred and seventy one thousand. Presently the figure given is of 400,000 Jews.

Eighty per cent of the Jews are established in the towns whose development is illustrated by the rapid appearance of the mushrooming town of Tel-Aviv; the development of Jewish industry is also rather rapid: in 1928 one could count 3,505 firms of which 782 had more than 4 workers, that's to say a total of 18,000 workers with a capital invested of 3.5 million pounds sterling.

The Jews established in the countryside represented only 20% faced with the Arabs who formed 65% of the agricultural population. But the Fellahs worked their land with primitive means, while the Jews in their colonies and plantations worked according to the intensive methods of capitalism with Arab labourers on very low wages.

The figures we have given already explain one side of the present conflict. For 20 centuries the Jews had abandoned Palestine and other populations were installed on the banks of the Jordan. Although the declarations of Balfour and the decisions of the League of Nations pretended to give respect to the rights of the occupants of Palestine, in reality the growth of Jewish immigration meant driving the Arabs out of their lands even if they were bought at a low price by the Jewish National Fund.

It is not through humanity towards "a persecuted people without a country" that Great Britain choose a pro-Jewish policy. It is the interests of high British finance where Jews have a predominant influence which determined this policy. On the other hand, from the beginning of Jewish colonisation one notices a contrast between Jewish and Arab proletarians. At the beginning the Jewish colonists had employed Jewish workers because they exploited their national fervour in order to defend themselves against Arab incursions. Afterwards, with the consolidation of the situation, the industrial and Jewish landed proprietors preferred Arab, to the more demanding Jewish labour.

Jewish workers, by setting up their unions, much more than the class struggle, took up in competition against the low Arab wages. That explains the chauvinist character of the Jewish workers' movement which is exploited by Jewish nationalism and British imperialism.

There are also naturally reasons of a political nature which are at the base of the present conflict. British imperialism, despite the hostility of the two races, wanted to make the two different states cohabit under the same roof and even create a bi-parliamentarism which envisaged a distinct parliament for Jews and Arabs.

In the Jewish camp, aside from the procrastinating directive of Weissman there are the revisionists of Jabotinsky who in fighting official Zionism, accused Great Britain of absenteeism, if not failing in its commitment, and who wanted to open Jewish immigration up to Trans-Jordan, Syria and the Sinai Peninsula.

The first conflicts which appeared in August 1929 and which unfolded around the Wailing Wall, provoked, according to the official statistics, the death of two hundred Arabs and a hundred and thirty Jews, figures certainly lower than reality, because if in the modern installations the Jews succeeded in repulsing the attacks, in Hebron, Safit and in some suburbs of Jerusalem, the Arabs went on to carry out some real pogroms.

These events marked a halt to the pro-Jewish British policy because the colonial British empire comprised many Muslims, India included, which was sufficient reason for it to be prudent.

Following this attitude of the British government towards the Jewish national homeland, the majority of the Jewish parties: the orthodox Zionists, the general Zionists and the revisionists went into opposition while the staunchest support for British policy managed at this time by the Labour Party, was represented by the Jewish Labour movement which was the political expression of the General Confederation of Labour, organising almost the totality of the Jewish workers in Palestine.

There was recently expressed. on the surface only, a common movement of Jewish and Arab struggle against the mandatory power. But the fire smouldered under the ashes and the explosion was composed on the the events of May last.


The Italian fascist press has been up in arms against the accusation of the "sanctionnist" press, that fascist agents had fomented the struggles in Palestine, an accusation already made regarding recent events in Egypt. Nobody can deny that fascism has a great interest in fanning the flames. Italian imperialism has never hidden its designs towards the Near-East, that's to say its desire to substitute itself for the mandatory powers in Palestine and Syria. Moreover, in the Mediterranean it possesses a powerful naval and military base represented by Rhodes and the other islands of the Dodecanese (12 islands of the Aegean). British imperialism on the other hand, if it finds itself advantaged by the conflict between Arabs and Jews, because according to the old Roman formula divide et impera, it must divide in order to rule, it must however take account of Jewish financial power and the threat of the nationalist Arab movement.

This latter movement of which we will talk more another time, is a consequence of the world war which led to an industrialisation in India, Palestine and Syria and which strengthened the indigenous bourgeoisie which posed its candidature for government, that's to say for the exploitation of the indigenous masses.

The Arabs accuse Britain of wanting to make Palestine the Jewish national homeland, which would mean stealing the land from the indigenous population. They have again sent emissaries to Egypt, Syria and Morocco in order to lead an agitation in the Muslim world in favour of the Palestinian Arabs, so as to try to intensify the movement with a view of a national pan-Islamic union. They are encouraged by recent events in Syria where the mandatory power, France, has been obliged to capitulate in front of a general strike, and also by events in Egypt where agitation and the constitution of a single national front has obliged London to treat the government of Cairo as an equal. We don't know if the general strike of the Arabs in Palestine will obtain a similar success. We will examine this movement at the same time as the Arab problem in the next article.


The Arab-Jewish Conflict in Palestine (Part 2)

As we saw in the first part of this article, when, after 2,000 years of "exile", the "Biluimes" acquired a sandy plain of territory to the south of Jaffa, they found other tribes, the Arabs, who took the place of those in Palestine. These latter were only some hundreds of thousands, either Arab Fellahs (peasants) or Bedouins (nomads); the peasants worked the soil with very primitive means, a soil belonging for the most part to the ground landlords (Effendi). British imperialism, as we know, in pushing these latifundists and the Arab bourgeoisie to join a struggle on its side during the world war, had promised them the constitution of an Arab national state. The Arab revolt was, in fact, of a decisive importance in the collapse of the Turko-German front in the Near-East, because it reduced to nothing the appeal from the Ottoman Calif to Holy War and held at bay numerous Turkish troops in Syria, without mentioning the destruction of the Turkish armies in Mesopotamia.

But if British imperialism had led this Arab revolt against Turkey, thanks to the promise to create an Arab state composed of all the provinces of the old Ottoman Empire (including Palestine), it didn't hesitate in the defence of its own interests to solicit, as a counter-point, the support of the Jewish Zionists by telling them that Palestine would be in their remit as much from the point of view of administration as for colonisation.

At the same time, it gained the support of French imperialism for it to cede the mandate over Syria, thus detaching this region, which formed with Palestine, an indissoluble historic and economic historical unity.


The letter that Lord Balfour addressed to Rothschild, president of the Zionist Federation of England on November 2 1917, communicated to him that the British government would look favourably on the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people and that he would use all his efforts for the realisation of this objective. Lord Balfour added that: "nothing would be done which could either harm the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish collectives existing in Palestine, or the rights and the political statute that the Jews enjoy in other countries".

Despite the ambiguous terms of this declaration, which allowed a new people to install themselves on their soil, the whole of the Arab population remained neutral at the beginning and even favourable to the setting up of a national Jewish homeland. The Arab proprietors, in fear that an agrarian law would be instituted, showed themselves willing to sell land. The Zionist leaders, solely absorbed with the preoccupation of the political order, did not profit from these offers and went as far as approving the defence of the Allenby government over the sale of land.

Soon, the Zionist bourgeoisie manifested tendencies to totally occupy (from the territorial and political point of view) Palestine by depossessing the native population and pushing it towards the desert. This tendency is shown today among the "revisionist" Zionists, that's to say in the pro-fascist current of the nationalist Jewish movement.

The area of arable land of Palestine is about 12 million metric "dounams" (one dounam = one tenth of a hectare) of which 5 to 6 million are currently under cultivation.

Here's how the area of land cultivated by the Jews in Palestine since 1899 has been established:

1899: 22 colonies, 5,000 inhabitants, 300,000 dounams.

1914: 43 colonies, 12,000 inhabitants, 400,000 dounams.

1922: 73 colonies, 15,000 inhabitants, 600,000 dounams.

1934: 160 colonies, 70,000 inhabitants, 1,200,000 dounams.

In order to judge the real value of this progression and the influence which comes from it, we mustn't forget that even today Arab cultivation of the land is of a primitive fashion, while the Jewish colonies employ the most modern cultivation methods.

Jewish capital invested in the agricultural enterprises are estimated at more than 100 million gold dollars, of which 65% is in the plantations. Although the Jews only possess 14% of the cultivated land, the value of products reaches a quarter of the total production.

For the orange plantations, the Jews manage 55% of the total crop.


It's in April 1920, in Jerusalem, and in May 1921, in Jaffa, that, under the form of pogroms, the first symptoms of Arab reaction occurs. Sir Herbert Samuel, High-Commissionaire in Palestine up to 1925, tried to appease the Arabs by stopping Jewish immigration, while promising to the Arabs a representative government and to assign to them the best land in the domain of the state.

After the great wave of colonisation of 1925, which reached its maximum with 33,000 immigrants, the situation worsened and ended up giving rise to the movements of 1929. It is at this time that the Bedouin tribes joined up with the Arab populations of Palestine, called for by Muslim agitators.

Following these events, the parliamentary commission of inquiry sent to Palestine and which is known as the Shaw Commission, concluded that the events were due to Jewish workers' immigration and the "scarcity" of land and it proposed to the government to buy land in order to compensate the Fellah removed from his land.

Afterwards, in May 1930, the British government accepted in their entirety, the conclusions of the Shaw Commission and again suspended Jewish workers' immigration to Palestine, the Jewish workers' movement - that the Shaw Commission had even refused to listen to - responded with a 24 hour protest strike, while the Poale-Zionists, in every country, as well as the large Jewish unions in America, protested against this measure through numerous demonstrations.

In October 1930, a new declaration concerning British policy in Palestine appeared and was known under the name of the "White Book".

It was equally unfavourable to Zionists arguments. But, faced with the ever-growing protests of the Jews, the Labour Government responded in February 1931, with a letter from MacDonald, which reaffirmed the right to work, to Jewish immigration and colonisation and authorised Jewish employers to hire Jewish labour when it preferred the latter rather than the Arabs - without taking into account the eventual increase of unemployment among the Arabs.

The Palestinian workers' movement hastened to put its trust in the British Labour government, whereas all the other Zionist parties remained in distrustful opposition.

We have demonstrated, in the preceding article, the reasons for the chauvinist character of the Palestinian workers' movement.

The Histadrut - the main Palestinian union - only included Jews (80% of Jewish workers are organised). It is only the necessity to raise the standard of life of the Arab masses, in order to protect the high wages of Jewish labour, which has lately determined its attempts at Arab organisation. But the embryonic unions grouped in "The Alliance" remain organically separate from Histadrut, the exception being the lorry drivers' union which includes the representatives of both races.


The general strike of Arabs in Palestine is now going into its fourth month. The guerrilla war continues, despite the recent decree which imposes the death penalty on anyone responsible for an attack; each day sees ambushes and raids against trains and cars, without counting the destruction and arson of Jewish property.

These events have already cost the mandatory power close to half-a-million pounds sterling, through the maintenance of the armed forces and through the reduction of budgetary duties, a consequence of the passive resistance and the economic boycott of the Arab masses. Recently, in the Commons, the Minister of the Colonies has given figures on the victims: 400 Muslims, 200 Jews and 100 police. Up to now, 1,800 Arabs and Jews have been judged and 1,200, of which 300 are Jews, condemned. According to the Minister, a hundred Arab nationalists have been deported to concentration camps.

Four communist leaders (2 Jews and 2 Armenians) are detained and 60 communists are under surveillance by the police. These are the official figures.

It is evident that the policy of British imperialism in Palestine naturally draws its inspiration from a colonial policy proper to any imperialism. This consists of basing itself on certain layers of the colonial population (by opposing races or different religious persuasions against each other, or again by arousing jealousies between chiefs or clans), which allows the imperialism to solidly establish its super-oppression over the colonial masses themselves without distinction between races or religions.

But if this manoeuvre was able to succeed in Morocco and in central Africa, in Palestine and in Syria the Arab nationalist movement presents a very compact resistance. It relies on the more or less independent countries which surround it: Turkey, Persia, Egypt, Irak, the Arab States and, moreover, is linked to the whole of the Muslim world which accounts for 300 million individuals.

Despite some contrasts between the the different Muslim states and despite the Anglophile policies of certain among them, the great danger for imperialism would be the constitution of an eastern bloc capable of imposing itself - this would be possible if the strengthening of a nationalist sentiment of the the indigenous bourgeoisie could prevent the awakening of the class revolt of the colonial exploited who would have had enough of their exploiters as much as European imperialism - and which would find a rallying point around Turkey which has again just affirmed its rights over the Dardanelles and which could again take up its pan-Islamic policy.

But, Palestine is of capital importance for British imperialism. If the Zionists thought they could obtain a "Jewish" Palestine, in reality they would only ever get a "British" Palestine. The Palestinian transit routes link Europe to India. They could replace the maritime route from Suez whose security has just been weakened by the establishment of Italian imperialism in Ethiopia. Nor should we forget that the pipe-line from Mosul ends up at the Palestinian port of Haifa.

Finally, British policy will always have to take account of the 100,000,000 Muslims of the British empire. Up to now, British imperialism has succeeded in Palestine in containing the threat represented by the Arab national independence movement. It opposes Zionism to the latter which, in pushing for the Jewish masses to emigrate to Palestine, dislocates the class movement of their country of origin where they would have found their place and, finally, it makes sure of a solid support for British policy in the Near-East.

The expropriation of land at derisory prices has plunged the Arab proletarians into the blackest misery and pushes them into the arms of the Arab nationalists, the big landowners and the nascent bourgeoisie. The latter evidently profited from this in order to direct the discontent of the Fellahs and proletarians against the Jewish workers in the same way that the Zionist capitalists have directed the discontent of the Jewish workers against the Arabs. From this contrast between exploited Jews and Arabs, British imperialism and the leading classes of the Jews and Arabs can only come out stronger.

Official communism helps the Arabs in their struggle against a Zionism which is qualified as an instrument of British imperialism.

Already, in 1929, the nationalist Jewish press published a "blacklist" from the police in which communists agitators figured alongside the Grand Mufti and some Arab nationalist chiefs. At present, numerous communist militants have been arrested.

Having launched the slogan for the "Arabisation" of the party - the latter, as the C.P. of Syria and even of Egypt, has been founded by a group of intellectual Jews which was fought as "opportunist" - the centrist have today launched the slogan "Arabia for the Arabs" which is only a copy of the slogan "Federation of all the Arab peoples", a nationalist Arab slogan, that's to say of the big planters (Effendi) and of the intellectuals who have the support of the Muslim clergy, controlled by the Arab Congress and channelling, in the name of their interests, the reactions of the exploited Arabs.

For real revolutionaries, naturally, there is no "Palestinian" question, but solely the struggle of all the exploited of the Near-East, Arabs and Jews included, which is part of a more general struggle of all the exploited of the entire world for the communist revolution.


Historic events: 




Position of the internationalists in the 1930s