The following is an edited transcript of a panel for the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction organized by Pilsen Community Books. The full discussion can be viewed here.
Erik Wallenberg: Can you tell us about why you decided to write a specifically socialist case for Palestine?
Brian Bean: To provide context to why we wrote the book I want to go back to 2008 because two important things happened in 2008 that laid out the trajectory of what we’re talking about today. The first is the global financial crash in which capitalism had its biggest crisis since the 1930s. People all around the world saw states bail out the billionaires at the price of working people’s living conditions. This economic crisis is still not resolved.
The other thing that happened in 2008 was Israel’s bombing of Gaza during what the Zionist entity calls Operation Cast Lead, in which about 2,000 Palestinians were killed in a two-week period. The violence committed against Gaza and Palestinians is not something that is exceptional, as it unfortunately and traumatically is quite normal. But those events were seen around the world through social media and sparked a new visibility and energy in support of the Palestinian cause. Both of these events laid out a trajectory of deepening radicalism around the issues of capitalist crisis and the need for the alternative of socialism and around justice and Palestine.
For the Palestinian liberation movement the need to combat imperialism and confront capitalism is far from a new idea. But I think that in this political moment we see a new importance in linking them. And that is what we hope to do with this book: to lay out a socialist perspective of fighting for justice in Palestine. That perspective is both that having a just solution to Palestine in the Middle East is going to require a confrontation with capitalism and also that socialists in the West, especially in the United States, have a special responsibility to fight for Palestine.
These twin, interlocking perspectives are really what drives the different aspects of the book. The first component is the need to confront capitalism regionally. This argument—made first by the Palestinian left in the 1960s—drew upon the understanding that in order for the Zionist state to be implanted in the region, it required the military and financial backing of imperial powers to carry out the settler-colonial project. This has been continuing from the origin of the Zionist entity to present, as the Nakba of 1948 is still ongoing and still has the backing of imperial powers—along with the $3.8-billion-plus per year the US spends on military support and the political support that the US lends.
This argument has become more obvious and stark as many Arab states have now normalized relations with Israel. This is a process that the US has wanted since the ’70s, at least. But under Trump this process rapidly increased, and Biden has shown no interest in doing anything different. Indeed Biden praised Trump for his advances in normalizing regional relations with the apartheid state. And what drives this process is global capitalism’s interest in propping up the Israeli state, to secure a stronghold in a region that is strategically important for geopolitical reasons, for shipping, for access to and control of oil, and for new circuits of finance that come from the Gulf Cooperation Council states.
So when we see the situation as it is now, in which we have an atrophied two-state solution in post-Oslo form, in which the Palestinian Authority (PA) are managers of an occupation, with no real benefit to Palestinian people, we have to understand what drives it. The answer lies in the interests of the global capitalist class and the interest of a nascent Palestinian capitalist class that is largely connected to the apparatus of the PA. In this we see the need to confront capitalism regionally, because confronting capitalism means confronting imperialism, of which Israel is a key pillar.
The second component is why socialists in the West, particularly in the US, should see Palestine as something that they should champion. The simple answer is that socialists need to be on the side of the oppressed. Since the United States is the prime backer for the Israeli State monetarily and politically, and since the US has its special relationship with Israel, this means that US socialists need to have a special emphasis on fighting the perpetuation and backing of this terrorist state of Israel by the state in which we reside.
The events of the past couple of months, with the tremendously heroic uprising all over historic Palestine, show the importance of these perspectives even more. Youth activists are rebelling against both the ongoing and deepening settler-colonial ethnic cleansing and at the same time against the two-state so-called solution and the PA’s complicity with the occupation. In this uprising there is the hope of wider rebellion against the status quo globally.
In response to those in Palestine we saw protests all over the world: a hundred thousand or so in London, fifteen here in Chicago, among dozens of other large gatherings. This has been, in many ways, the biggest global series of protests against imperialism since the 2003 Iraq War. So we see how these things are linked together, and those are the arguments that we make in the book. We hope it is a contribution to deepening the adoption of a socialist perspective, both here in the US and abroad, to draw together and strengthen relationships—that are already organically drawn together—into a more solid, sharp, and capable tool to help fight for the liberation of Palestine.
Erik Wallenberg: In many ways, this book really shows how the 1948 Nakba, the catastrophe, has never ended. The terror inflicted on Palestinians, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to create a Zionist state, is really all throughout this. You get the sense that this isn’t static, it didn’t only happen fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. Can you talk about this ongoing process?
Daphna Thier: We have lost the façade of a liberal Zionism that we used to have. Now it’s very clear that Zionism is very right-wing and that has always been what it is. We’re watching as thousands of people are struggling against dispossession. If you look back to 1948, with tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands expelled, and then you look to 1967, again with ten thousand fatalities, people expelled once more, some people for a second time, this was when the Labor government was in power.
And then there’s been this clear shift to the right, basically with the end of the Oslo Accords. Frankly Oslo was a huge win for Israel because it left the Palestinian territory completely fragmented and fully under Israeli control, and that gave rise to the Second Intifada. But now there is no more need for lip service to ending occupation.
So the government today, under Naftali Bennett, is ironically the broadest coalition of parties yet, from the right-wing and religious Zionists all the way to the center-left (if you can really call Labor and Meretz center-left), and even an Islamist Palestinian party. But it’s the government that has the most right-wing mandate that’s ever been. The so-called left has embraced that mandate almost immediately, because ultimately they see themselves closer to the right than to Palestinians.
There is this growing chasm between Zionist colonization today and when it had these lofty ideals in the past. We’re seeing through the social media window this really ugly right-wing face. And that’s making people have to choose a side. This is especially true for Jews in the US, who have always been a major source of support for Israel, and that support is clearly cracking. And of course, there’s the Black progressive support for Palestinians in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Connections have been made between their own oppression and Palestinian oppression.
That means that we have very good reasons to be hopeful right now. This is certainly the most hopeful I’ve ever been about the prospect of the end of apartheid because of the increasing scrutiny and the ability of Palestinians to get their voice across. Hasbara is Israel’s public relations with the international community, but the word actually means explanation. Well, today Hasbara is having a very difficult time because they can really no longer explain things that we’re all seeing so clearly.
If you look now at what’s happening in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, these are people who were already expelled twice in 1948 and then 1967. They’re in homes that were given to them by the Jordanian government. And now they’re fighting to hold onto those homes that Israel would like to take. This is very clearly just a consistent approach of colonization, and there’s just no way to make colonization anything other than a right-wing project.
Erik Wallenberg: I wonder if we can turn to look at some of the roots of Zionism. Looking at the origins of Zionism, we see how it was a reaction to the horrors of global imperialism and antisemitism, antisemitism that accompanied all of the imperial fights of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But Zionism was profoundly pessimistic in comparison with the vision of the socialist movement.
This is really the heart of the book in giving an alternative to Zionism, a socialist alternative that really thrived in Jewish communities throughout Europe in particular but also in the Middle East and North Africa. So I’m wondering if you can take us through some of this history, these different reactions to antisemitism, with Zionism on the one hand and socialism on the other.
Daphna Thier: At first Zionism took hold among very small numbers compared to other more progressive ways of thinking. It took hold more among middle- and lower-middle-class Jews. It didn’t get nearly as much of a foothold into the Jewish working class, which was much more drawn to the communist parties and to the Bund, if we’re talking about Eastern Europe. This was in the context of nationalist movements and at a time when colonization wasn’t yet understood fully as a concept.
Some Jewish workers did join what was called Poale Zion, a left-wing or communist version of Zionism, and their ranks often changed into communist party members. They were often accused by committed Zionists that they cared too much about the plight of Jewish workers in Poland, Russia, and Eastern Europe. The truth is the Jews in those areas experienced very harsh, very violent repression, and they were some of the most radical workers who tended to be even ahead of non-Jewish workers in those countries politically. They built organizations. They built strike funds. They developed connections to the Bund and to unions and to the communist parties. I would say this is really the true legacy of that period. Zionism was very small at that time. And even in Poale Zion there were very few who actually had any intention of going to Palestine.
Of course things changed rapidly around World War II, at a time when Jewish refugees were being turned away from other places and the Zionist movement actively colluded to bring in Jews from Europe to Palestine. But they weren’t in any way helping to mitigate against the refusal to allow refugees into other states or trying to advocate for Jews to just go anywhere that was safe. They had a very clear agenda.
If you look at that history, and then you look at what the Zionists did just two and a half years later to Palestinians, it’s really a slap in the face. Genocide was committed against Jews in Europe, and then they turn around and commit that same act of genocide against Palestinian people.
Zionism was a reactionary ideology that thought that there was no cure to antisemitism and that Jews had to be separated. This contrasts with the reality for most Jews up until the experience of World War II—that they were deeply connected to building a working-class movement within their own countries.
Erik Wallenberg: I want to think a little bit about the question of Zionism today. Daphna, you write in the book about the limits of the Israeli working class and how they cannot really be a liberatory class for the Palestinian struggle. I’m wondering if you can explain this, because a central component of socialism is that the working class must liberate itself and the rest of humanity. So there’s a contradiction here that you point out. Also, what is the role of the larger working class in the region in Palestinian liberation?
Daphna Thier: At the core of it, this is apartheid, so it’s also apartheid labor. Jews and Palestinians are not working shoulder to shoulder, they’re not competing for jobs or sharing working conditions. There’s practically a separate economy. And while they both pay into taxes, one set of workers also benefits disproportionately from the services of the state.
One set of workers benefits from access, not only to jobs and education, but also to land and construction. One set of workers thrives off the existence of the arms and occupation economy similar to how a community surrounding a prison might thrive off of the prison population.
The significance of this is that while Palestinians lack basic democratic rights, they can’t organize themselves. And for as long as Israelis benefit from them not having those democratic rights they’re not going to be their allies in the process. So we have to think about how we strengthen Palestinian rights so that they can organize themselves. And that would be a much more powerful source for change.
Brian Bean: The struggle for Palestine will not be won in isolation, but by seeing its connection to the need for regional revolt. That oftentimes can sound like an abstract thing. Going back and looking at the course of the Arab Spring in 2011 and its second wave in 2019 is really instructive and important. The connections are very concrete. For example, much of the organizing that led to the revolution in Egypt in 2011 can be traced back to origins of organizing solidarity with the Second Intifada.
The cause of Palestine has great resonance among the working class regionally, because Israel is the most clear example of foreign domination that has other expressions in the region, as many of the states have had or have rulers who are backed by foreign powers—the US especially but not exclusively. So the cause of Palestine resonates in the so-called Arab street. This solidarity and confidence flows the other way too. And so, as the Egyptian revolution rumbled, on Land Day Palestine refugees marched to the borders of the apartheid state.
You can see how the cause of Palestine is something that has a generative effect to struggle globally, and also how that struggle internationally can lift up people in Palestine as well. While the Arab Spring was a regional uprising, it had international reverberations. The Occupy movement, for example, was pretty directly related to these regional revolutions. We saw that again in 2019 with the second wave of revolutions in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq. And in Lebanon, right before the uprising swelled there were large protests led by Palestinian and Syrian refugees against changes in work visas. Again, it was a detonator.
And of course in 2019, the revolutions in Algeria and Sudan really set off a year of global revolt that was temporarily put on pause because of the global pandemic—with the antiracist uprising in the US last summer being one exception. I think that we’ve seen reverberations of those uprisings still stirring. So when we talk about revolt and the power of the working class to rise up and upset structures, I think it’s a very concrete thing. Looking at these struggles, while they have been far from perfect and had many tragic consequences, they still are a hopeful echo of the possibility of what we need.
Erik Wallenberg: My union, the Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty, staff, and graduate students at CUNY, the City University of New York, with about thirty thousand members, just passed a resolution in support of the Palestinian struggle against apartheid that calls for an end to US aid to Israel and affirms individual union members’ right to engage in BDS.
And most importantly, it calls on union members to organize discussions about BDS on campuses across the city, and then to report back to the delegates’ assembly at the end of the year. It was so impressive to see those being organized, and I don’t think the union leadership was very happy with it. But they had to accept it because there was a massive grassroots campaign across the university on twenty-some campuses to really try to give this resolution some teeth.
How do you see this struggle moving forward in the US in particular? Demonstrations in the street are important, but how do you start to exert some more power in unions or in unorganized workplaces?
Can you give us examples of where this struggle stands today? What steps might people take to start to try to move this discussion and movement forward? This of course occurs in the context of this new Biden administration. Where can we leverage any kind of a fightback?
Brian Bean: In the US, the BDS movement had its first big, powerful surge on college campuses. That was really important. That’s the reason why the Israeli state spends millions of dollars to influence US college campuses, which is really weird if you think about it. Unfortunately, the US is different than elsewhere in the world in that BDS has been historically very weak in the labor movement.
However, during and after this last bombardment of Gaza and the heroic resistance across historic Palestine we have seen a pretty sizeable wave of labor resolutions against Israel’s actions and, even more importantly, supporting BDS. The Seattle Teachers’ Union, the San Francisco Teachers’ Union, and a number of others had historic wins.
Now passing a resolution in support of BDS is different than actually having a campaign to boycott, divest, or sanction. I think it is an opening because people are thinking about how they can fight for justice in Palestine in their workplace, but we still have large fights ahead. People should continue to push and to raise resolutions in trade unions, but also figure out how to actually have campaigns around economic connections to apartheid.
The last thing I would add is that we need to start talking about sanctions on Israel and raising fights to the level of the federal government.
Daphna Thier: It’s really important to connect the Palestinian struggle with the international context. Before Israel was founded, in the nineteenth century, the early Zionists saw that it could be potentially a French colonial outpost. Then they tried to curry favor with the Ottoman Empire. When the British occupied Palestine they turned to them. They became close collaborators in quelling the Palestinian labor strikes and the peasant resistance in the late 1930s.
The Zionists were armed and trained by the British after World War II. They also enjoyed Soviet patronage, as well as from the British and the French. The myth of this small army pitted against all these Arab armies is completely false because they were armed by imperialist powers. Then after the formation of the state, they received all this aid from West Germany and from the US that basically helped set up the entire society after the 1960s. After the 1967 war, the US became much more heavily involved. They saw very clearly the asset that Israel could be in the region. So the US got more involved specifically in military aid and moved away from funding settlers directly, and began funding the military more directly.
And today, while they don’t pay as big a portion into the military through aid, they do pay quite a bit, and they maintain relationships through arms deals and loans. For example, during the last Israeli assault on Gaza, Biden approved a $735 million precision-guided weapons arms sale to Israel. Israel, since the 1970s and 1980s, has actually become one of the world’s largest arms dealers, with the highest arms sales per capita. So in a sense, their entire economy really rests on the arms economy.
I say all of this because they are so part of that imperialist world order. They specialize in drones and surveillance and high-tech security. They have contributed to the geopolitical balances. Israel is basically the only nuclear power in the Middle East. They collaborate with the US in every way, and they’ve supplied arms and training to authoritarian regimes in many countries, some of which used those arms and training to massacre thousands of left-wing dissidents. So there is a place here for connections among movements.
In fact, in Colombia during the recent upsurge, I saw they burned American and Israeli flags because they made that connection between the American world order and how deeply connected Israel is to that. If we can make those connections, that international connection, if we can say “Israel is a reactionary state that is supporting the very same forces that defeat my movement,” well, then we have a world order we could defeat.