A Palestinian Option

A Reply to Fred Halliday

by Khalil Nakhleh
published in MER96

Fred Halliday’s comments on the debate that constitutes the bulk of Towards a Socialist Republic of Palestine (1978) require a serious Palestinian response. Unwittingly, perhaps, Halliday’s comments tend to undermine this debate, and put a damper on Palestinian intellectual and passionate explorations of genuinely democratic options to their undemocratic, persistent and oppressive predicament.

The Palestinian debate about the better, more humane, democratic, anti-racist options for our future society and polity is not a mere exercise in juggling what world powers will or do not will for us; nor is it an attempt to fit our future to what was (and is) accepted, whether standard or irregular solutions. Our experience dictates to us a few basic principles: a) racism cannot be combated with reversed racism; b) our struggle is comprehensive, transformational and permeating; and c) it is irreversible, in terms of our own experience and that of the societies in which we coexist. In this light, it seems crude (I don’t know how else to describe it!) for a non-Palestinian, however socialist he is, to advise us to accept a solution that institutionalizes and validates the negation of what we are struggling for.

To be systematic, my brief response to Fred Halliday’s comments focuses, firstly, on his approach, secondly, on his premises, and thirdly, on his proposed solution. My assumption here is that this is not a debate of wits. It is a discussion among comrades who differ in their outlook about a solution for the chronic Palestinian situation of dispossession, oppression and delegitimation. One certain result of this situation is wholesale suffering with an unbending will to struggle. Such is the situation I am discussing, and such personal passion is what fuels my struggle.

The Approach

Simply stated, Halliday’s attack on the debate in Towards a Socialist Republic of Palestine which, as indicated in the title, does not advocate a two-state solution to the Palestine question, is that it goes against the “standard socialist solution,” or the “principled socialist position,” namely that of partition. Where is the standard socialist solution? The problem in this is that a consistent socialist policy regarding the question of national liberation and self- determination simply does not exist. Halliday is certainly well aware that the “national question,” or the right of nations to self-determination, is perhaps the most ambiguous and inconsistent theoretical formulation in the Marxist-Leninist tradition. If that is the case, then, how did the “standard” and “principled” position emerge? Does it refer to Lenin’s 1903 position of the “self-determination of the proletariat,” or his 1919 position which advocated the “self-determination of nations?” Or does it perhaps refer to Rosa Luxemburg’s position which advocated “freedom from national oppression”? Or Stalin’s? Or Trotsky’s?

Lenin’s position, which comes the closest to what might be described a “principled socialist position,” has been assessed as “somewhat nebulous” and “very difficult to grasp.” Horace Davis elaborates: Lenin “was against national secession from tzarist Russia, in practice, but he fought violently for the right of secession, in theory. He was also the principal fighter for the cultural rights of the small nationalities.” [1]

It is clear, it seems to me, that nowhere can a “standard” or “principled” socialist position be found; it looks more like a norm -- an ideal type -- created by Halliday himself. It is possible, however, that Halliday is referring in effect to the position that has been espoused by the Soviet Union and the socialist-bloc countries regarding the Palestine-Zionist conflict. But this too does not come anywhere near a “standard” or “principled” position on Palestine. The position espoused by socialist countries and/or parties has gone through historical shifts -- both within and outside Palestine, both before and after 1947. Prior to the United Nations vote for partition in 1947 the “standard” socialist position urged a binationalist Palestine, free of British and other imperialist dominance. However, there were very clear shifts in that position after 1948 and, definitely, after 1967.

These shifts in the established socialist position are most likely a result of the shifting global and regional power balance. They do not emanate from an inherent socialist stance, elaborated in the body of socialist theory, nor from a body of fixed ideological literature. They represent an acceptance of the lowest common denominator that may be tolerable to both parties of the conflict, and that can be supported internationally. In that case, there is nothing new in Halliday’s argument: all what we, as Palestinians, are asked to do then, is to accept the dominant socialist position, that is neither “standard” nor “principled.”

In addition to the approach, the logic of Halliday’s argument falters as he becomes more specific about the proposal.

The Premises

Halliday’s present argument may be summarized schematically as follows:

1. The Palestinian question is one of “national oppression”;

2. in such situations, nations have the right to their own state;

3. since Israelis form a nation and Palestinians form a nation;

4. Israelis and Palestinians each have a right to self determination;

5. the “standard socialist solution” for situations of national oppression is partition.

I have dealt with the claim that partition is the “standard socialist solution” to situations of oppression. I shall focus here on the major premise that Israelis form a nation. Note that Halliday’s emphasis is on Israelis, rather than Jews. “While Jews do not form a nation, Israelis do.”

Even though the question of whether or not “Israelis” form a nation has been discussed at length before, [2] one would think that Halliday might have something new to say. A closer examination of his premise reveals its apparent superficiality. He writes: “The Jews of the world are not a nation, but Israelis are not just Jews. Israelis are those born in Israel, or citizens of that country; they have a culture, language and history distinct from that of Jews in gentile countries.” How accurate is this?

Although it is true that there is a territorial unit now called Israel, and that the people living in it are called Israelis, it is not accurate that “they have a culture, language and history distinct from that of Jews in gentile countries.” One, we are talking about 15 percent of those Israeli citizens (Palestinian Arabs) who do not share the culture, language and history; nor do they share the same future aspirations of the majority. Furthermore, they are excluded from the benefits of citizenship, and are oppressed in many aspects of their basic rights (e.g., land expropriation, political expression) primarily because of their non-Jewishness, i.e., because they do not share in the only criterion of citizenship: Jewishness. In this case, therefore, Israelis are indeed Jews, and the “Israeli” category is nothing more than another layer placed over, rather than transforming, the Jewishness criterion.

Two, only Jewish Israelis who were born in Israel since 1948 have what one might call a culture. But it is a culture whose history can only extend into Jewish history. Although Jewish, the various immigrant communities maintain a corresponding geographical clustering that, in spite of a powerful integrative institution such as the army, sustains existing distinctions that keep connecting these communities with their countries of origin. Whereas this does not apply to the Sephardic Jews, other more powerful cultural and class divisions keep them separate too.

Three, what of the strong immigration/emigration pattern that is so essential to the integrity of the so-called Israeli nation? What about the twenty thousand or so Jews who have been immigrating annually from Western countries to become Israelis, and the roughly equal number that has been leaving? Are these part of the Israeli nation? Are the nearly haifa million Jewish Israelis in the United States a part of the Israeli nation? Is Halliday talking about those “Israelis” in New York or Los Angeles as having a right to a state, or those oppressed poor in Hatikvah quarter in Tel Aviv, or those American and British settlers in Carmiel who moved there to realize their Jewishness, or those Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship in Nazareth?

Clearly, I am not arguing that there is no theoretical possibility that an “Israeli nation” can develop. What I am arguing is that now, with the present defining criteria, no such nation exists. The sole defining criterion of membership in the territorial unit under question (Israel) is Jewishness as defined by religious law. It is not a category of cultural affiliation, nor is it an inherent birthright.

The Solution

Since the “standard solution” to such a situation of national oppression, according to Halliday, is partition, I shall comment briefly in the remaining section on his proposed program. The details of what he is proposing reveal the incongruency of his argument.

Halliday discusses modification of the general proposal regarding a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside Israel, in two important respects: the boundaries, and the Palestinian right of return. The boundaries, he argues, “cannot in any justice be limited to the West Bank and Gaza...[the Palestinians] must have the right to retain a claim to ... up to half of the total area to be partitioned.” In other words, Halliday is advocating a program that follows basically the lines of the 1947 UN Partition Plan.

The second important modification is “the right of every Palestinian to return to where he or she came from.” This is being proposed without a challenge, of course, to the Israeli Law of Return which was passed in 1950 and has been applied ever since. From this, the following emerges: a state for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, with the incorporation of additional territory (up to one half the total area) from Israel, and a Palestinian right to return to their places of origin in Palestine. Since the thrust of the present discussion is not to assess the merits of the different proposals, I limit myself to the implications of Halliday’s solution to his argument.

On the one hand, Halliday argues in favor of self-determination for the “Israeli nation.’’ presumably in the territory that they carved out of Palestine in 1948, and they call Israel, but on the other he implies that the territory needs to be redistributed in favor of a new Palestinian state. What are the guidelines? Why does it have to be half of the territory? Is it a numerical ratio, and will that have to change with changing demographic characteristics of the two groups? How logical is the entire basis of this approach anyway?

The boundary question relates intimately to the “right of return” proposal. A Palestinian right of return undermines the Jewishness of the Israeli state. A Zionist-Jewish Israel is for the very majority of Israeli Jews the realization of their right of self-determination. If Halliday argues for their right to statehood, as he does, then he cannot simultaneously argue for the negation of that right. This is in effect what he is doing here, and this is why his argument falters on many levels.

A more simple question lies at the heart of the Palestinian question that renders Halliday’s argument superfluous. Does any group of people, whether a nation or not, have the right to interpret their perceived self-determination in any way that negates the right of another group of people to a free and independent existence in their land? We, the Palestinians, have answered this question negatively at least 60 years ago. Hence, we view our struggle to be of the most essential nature. Consequently, and unless advanced as a tactical consideration, all partition proposals evade the seminal character of the conflict at hand. Our option, therefore, is not on what piece of Palestine can we translate our self-determination into a government and a flag -- how is it then self-determination? Our option, as I see it, is one: how best to liberate our land, our society and our future; how best to create democratic and free institutions where none exist. No so-called “principled socialist position” is advising us on that.


[1] Horace B. Davis, Toward a Marxist Theory of Nationalism (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 65, 78.
[2] Mahjoub ‘Umar, Hiwar fi Dhill al-Banadiq (Beirut: Dar al-Tali‘a, 1975).

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