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Imperialism — It Hasn’t Gone Away You Know

Last Words for Henry McDonald

Brian Kelly

Two weeks ago I responded to an article posted on The Blanket by Henry McDonald entitled “The Beast is Back”. The thrust of his argument was that sympathy for the Palestinian cause in this country was symptomatic of an historically-rooted, especially virulent form of anti-semitism peculiar to the Irish-and most specifically the Irish left. As evidence, McDonald recounted the discussion that he’d heard on a radio talk show that was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinians, but failed to supply a single quote to confirm that anti-semitism rather than, say, basic human decency, motivated the callers. Pilfering rather selectively from an important recent study on Racism and Social Change in the Irish Republic, McDonald attempted to lend academic credibility to his argument by tracing this national inclination back to the early twentieth century.

The piece was, in my view, a shoddy and malicious attempt to smear those involved in organizing against ongoing brutality in the occupied territories and in that sense typical of the kind of journalism-by-caricature that McDonald and his employers inflict upon the reading public every Sunday morning. Moreover, as I attempted to show, it was unoriginal. Whether wilfully or not, McDonald has lent whatever professional authority he enjoys to a concerted effort by “friends of Israel” around the world to push the solidarity movement onto the defensive and thereby clear the way to a relentless and unimpeded assault on Palestinian life.

McDonald’s recent rejoinder is more telling for what it does not say than for what it does. Nowhere does he defend the central thrust of his previous argument that the “Irish left” is driven by anti-semitism. Now we (in the latest rendition the “ultras”, the “so-called anti-imperialist left,” the “left allies of the Palestinian Authority”) are berated for the lesser crime of clinging naively to a “simplistic two-dimensional approach” to the conflict, of being dupes of a reactionary and anti-semitic surge in the Arab world.

But those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. In spite of the vast experience that he claims in reporting the Middle East, McDonald’s most recent entry shows him to be both uninformed historically and out of touch with the current situation. In a word, he holds to an extremely simplistic perspective on the conflict that dovetails with the commentary emanating out of Downing Street and the White House. Without wishing to prolong this discussion endlessly, there are several important points that cannot go unanswered:

  1. The 1967 war: McDonald asserts that in 1967 “four Arab armies unilaterally attacked the Jewish state with the aim of wiping it off the face of the earth”. Almost no one except Zionist propagandists any longer holds to this version of events. In the first place, Israel struck first, launching “pre-emptive” air strikes against Egypt at 5am on June 5th. But the provocation came earlier. The UN secretary-general at the time concluded that “[b]ellicose statements by Israeli leaders…created…panic in the Arab world.” The British ambassador in Tel Aviv at the time described Israeli strategy as “deliberately contrived preventive war”. The American anti-Zionist Norman Finkelstein, whose parents survived the Warsaw ghetto and the Maidanek and Auschwitz concentration camps, concludes that Israel "faced no significant threat, let alone mortal danger, in June 1967 [and] diplomacy seemed…to be working [before Israel launched pre-emptive air raids]. In The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, the gifted Israeli historian Avi Schlaim concludes that “Israel’s strategy of escalation on the Syrian front was probably the single most important factor in dragging the Middle East to war in June 1967,” a finding supported by Michael Brecher in his authoritative Decisions in Crisis. Israel’s minister of defense at the time, Moshe Dayan, conceded afterward that his forces deliberately provoked Syria: “ I know how at least 80 percent of the clashes there started…. It went this way: We would send a tractor to plough someplace [in the demilitarized zone] and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until…the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also….” According to Shlaim, Dayan and his officers “did not accept the 1949 armistice lines with Syria as final and hoped to change them by means that fell short of war, by ‘snatching bits of territory and holding on to it until the enemy despairs and gives it to us’.” Sound familiar?

  2. The Palestinian Authority and the Rise of Hamas: Few people on the left, and fewer on the ground in the occupied territories, have any illusions in the PA. But what is the basis for opposing the PA, and what should replace them? Bush/Blair/Sharon call for reform of the PA, as do Edward Said and a number of other Palestinian intellectuals committed to a secular, left-wing alternative. Here’s the problem, though, which McDonald’s vague critique founders upon. George Bush and company want reform in order to manufacture a leadership that is even more craven, more corrupt, more committed to repression in the territories than Arafat. But Arafat’s star is falling and the Islamist’s rising because he has compromised too much already and has been completely ineffective in organizing resistance to Israeli brutality. There are mixed signals coming out of Palestine: many have commented on the growing influence of the Islamists (divided themselves between those who would accept a two-state solution and those who want to see the destruction of Israel, and between the hesitant middle classes and those with no reasons left to hesitate); Said and others have suggested that a secular left is also re-emerging. Of course socialists favor and seek by every means at our disposal to promote the latter. But you can’t do that with the “tit-for-tat,” plague-on-both-your-houses understanding of events being articulated by McDonald.

  3. Israeli democracy/Arab dictatorship: I am hoping that Henry was not suggesting in his recent piece that the entire legacy of the Enlightenment has been reduced to the right of lesbians to parade bare-breasted with political slogans scrawled across their nipples (much as I would defend their right to do so). At the moment Palestinians in the occupied territories would settle, I suspect, for the right to walk unmolested to the corner shop for a pack of smokes, or to breathe freely on what’s left of their balconies without being fired upon by an IDF sniper. Fundamentalist Islam has won a following in the region precisely because in the Middle East more than any other corner of the world “western civilization,” the Enlightenment, all that, has never really delivered on its promise of human emancipation. It seems hollow enough these days in the “advanced” west, but the gap between rhetoric and reality must be unbearable in a region where stark poverty and crushing oppression coexist alongside such colossal, even obscene wealth and luxury. Imperialism-to use a dirty word-has for the past fifty plus years relied on two main pillars to retain control of the oil-rich Middle East-Israeli militarism and Arab dictatorship: they are not opposite entities but complimentary ones. That might help explain why-contrary to what McDonald asserts-every major Arab ruler is on record recognizing Israel’s right to exist. The simple fact is that genuine democracy and real freedom in the region has always been a far more potent threat to US and Israeli interests than dictatorship. That was true in 1967, when the CIA defined Israel’s main objective as “the destruction of the center of power of the radical Arab socialist movement” and it was true in Jordan in the early 1980s and, as Henry should know, in Lebanon during the same period, when Israel faced mainly secular and left-wing opposition. Islamic fundamentalism-dubbed by Tariq Ali the “anti-imperialism of fools”-arose out of the ashes of their defeat.

  4. The two-state solution: No hidden agenda here. Those active in building solidarity for Palestine hold differing opinions, with the majority probably supporting a two-state solution. As a socialist and a defender of the Enlightenment I am opposed to religious states as a matter of principle. Just as I would oppose the creation of an Islamic state, or a Catholic one, or a Protestant one, or a Hindu one, I am opposed as well to a Jewish state-and particularly since that state is founded upon the dispossession of Palestinians. Moreover, the past two years bear out the argument that no independent Palestinian entity is viable so long as Israel exists in its present form. Nor is any lasting solution to the wider conflict in the Middle East possible so long as the people and resources of the region are dominated by imperialism. So yes, a democratic and secular state which gives equal rights to Jews, Muslims, Christians and non-believers, and which accepts that all those presently living in Israel/Palestine, along with those forcibly expelled after 1948, have a right to reside there. What’s so “ultra” about that?

The impending war against Iraq is horrible enough to contemplate on its own, but to make matters worse, it is fairly evident that the Israeli right will use the confrontation to hammer the Palestinians even further, perhaps even making good on the call to begin their “transfer” out of the West Bank and Gaza. In the coming weeks it is important to step up the excellent work that has already begun throughout Ireland and Britain to stop Bush, Blair and Sharon from unleashing even more terror. We shouldn’t be diverted from the most important challenge this generation has ever yet faced by those who can no longer see the forest for the trees.


Brian Kelly is a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Belfast.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

9 January 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Pressure on Sinn Fein Grows
Tommy McKearney


Hiroshima non amour: Desmond Fennell’s predictable dissent

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Bush and Blair are going for it: Time to Act
Davy Carlin


Lied His Way In - Lied His Way Out
Anthony McIntyre


Six Soldiers
Annie Higgins


Imperialism - It Hasn't Gone Away, You Know
Brian Kelly


Picket In Support of Human Rights Activists


The Letters page has been updated.


5 January 2003


Hammering Dissent
Anthony McIntyre


Maria Duce non Dulce (et decorum est)

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Amnesty International & Israel: Say It Isn't So!
Paul de Rooij


A Northern Majority for Irish Unity is Not Too Remote to be of Relevance
Paul A. Fitzsimmons




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