The Case for Hebrew Self-Determination

10 February 1972

in A Critique of Zionist Ideology, Articles, The Other Israel

This chapter is an edited version of an article written by M. Machover in response to one written by Bill Hillier, Revival of the Palestinians, which appeared in Peace News on June 6, 1969. In it, Hillier raised some pertinent questions, a central one being the right of the Israeli Jews to self-determination. He also demanded a prompt reply from the Israeli revolutionary left. In point of fact, the ISO already stated its views on these issues in an article by A. Sa’id and Moshe Machover; nevertheless, Machover here reiterates and elucidates the ISO’s position concerning self-determination.


One of the central issues raised by people concerned with the future of Palestine is that of the status of the Israeli Jews (i.e., the Hebrew-speaking national community). The ISO has argued that, despite the fact that it was created by Zionism, a Hebrew nation in the full sense of the term now exists in Palestine. And as such it has the right to self-determination, not certainly in the Zionist sense, but within the context of a socialist federation of the Middle East. On the other hand, many revolutionaries, including the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DPF) favors “union of Jews and Arabs of Palestine as one people as the only possible basis for a socialist transformation.” Obviously, nations and national communities cannot simply be wished out of, or into, existence. If this were possible, the only truly socialist “wish” would be for the whole human race to form a union “as one people.” This is also the condition that one hopes to achieve in the long run under communism – the withering away of all national differences, and therefore of nations as such. But for the present, nations and national problems do exist and socialists must formulate a correct policy on the national question.

By “correct” is meant that which is most in accordance with the interests of the struggle for socialism. The policy adopted by many socialists (including the ISO) is to recognize the right of all nations to self-determination. The purpose of this is not to encourage separatism and national particularism. On the contrary, it is designed to minimize them and to create, wherever possible, a basis for voluntary convergence, unification and integration.

A question that remains to be answered is whether the Hebrew-speaking community does, in fact, constitute a nationality. But this is not just a matter of historical analysis; it is, to a great extent, an empirical question. Our answer-based both on historical analysis and on the direct and close familiarity with the relevant empirical facts – is that, according to any reasonable definition of “nation” or “national community,” the Israeli Jews do constitute such a group. Those who oppose the recognition of the principle of self-determination of the Israeli Jews assert that merging of Arabs and Jews in Palestine into a single Palestinian national entity is the only basis for a socialist transformation. Let us analyze this assertion. No true socialist would deny that in order to achieve a socialist revolution in a country inhabited by two peoples, they should join together in a common struggle – this is elemental But this by no means implies that they must merge into one people. Moreover, an analysis of the Middle East shows that a socialist revolution is extremely unlikely to occur within the framework of Palestine alone; it can be thought of only as a process embracing the whole Arab East

This thesis, that revolution cannot be localized in Palestine but must encompass the entire Middle East, is accepted not only by the ISO but by all Arab revolutionary socialists. Why then should the Israeli Jews merge only with the Palestinian Arabs rather than with the entire Arab nation? If one claims that the creation of a single nation is the prerequisite for the revolution, and if one also accepts the concept of a total Middle-Eastern revolution, then one must advocate the view that the Israeli Jews should be regarded as part of a “Middle-Eastern” people.

Those who support the idea of one Palestinian people consisting of Palestinian Jews and Arabs do so because they believe that the territory of Palestine should be constituted as a new Palestinian state. On the other hand, it is generally agreed that such a new state can be created only by a socialist revolution victorious throughout a much wider region, and that one of the aims and results of such a revolution would be the creation of a united, socialist Arab East It follows, therefore, that the new Palestinian state must be conceived only as a relatively separate constituent of a larger socialist union. And to follow this one step further, the raison d’être of such a new Palestinian state can only be to furnish a national home for the new Palestinian nation. This is definitely begging the question: We come back to the starting point. The view of the ISO is more coherent; it views the solution of the Palestine problem as one of the tasks of a socialist revolution throughout the entire region. The main obstacles which must be overcome in order to achieve this revolution are direct imperialist intervention, neo-colonialist domination, and imperialism’s two partners, Zionism and Arab reaction.

The struggle of the Palestinian Arabs, carried out directly against Zionism and resulting from the fact that they are the direct and chief victims of Zionism, must be regarded in the light of the wider revolutionary struggle. A victorious revolution will have to solve (among other things) the national problems bequeathed to it by imperialism. The following three points must be considered if the real problems existing in the Middle East today are to be solved.

  1. Arab national unification. The Arabs of the Middle East are a nation in the process of crystallization (roughly comparable to the Italians in the late nineteenth century on the eve of the political unification of Italy). The Balkanization of the Arab East imposed by British and French imperialism after 1918 does not make sense in terms of past history and – more important – would block any kind of serious social-economic reconstruction and development Within the Arab nation – as within most big nations, especially in their formative period – there exist numerous subgroups with their own local or regional particularities. It follows, therefore, that a united socialist Arab East would be likely to have some sort of federal structure.
  2. The Palestinian Arabs, who are a special part of the Arab nation, are victims of a specific and acute form of national oppression. The revolution will overthrow Zionism and arrange the repatriation of all the refugees who choose to be repatriated, as well as the full compensation and rehabilitation of all those who suffered in any way as a result of Zionism. Territorial arrangements can be made for the establishment of a Palestinian (plus Jordanian) Arab constituent, part of the united socialist state.
  3. The non-Arab nationalities living within the Arab world (Israeli Jews, Kurds, South Sudanese) will be recognized and granted their national rights – in other words, self-determination. This is not only correct in principle, but it is also the only conceivable basis for attracting the masses of these nationalities to a joint struggle with the Arab masses.

This third point has been a source of anxiety to some: It raises the question of how the concept of self-determination ties in with the full restitution of Palestinian rights lost since 1948. For the geographical reintegration that would ensue would not necessarily be reconcilable with a separate Hebrew state, particularly if given territory and boundaries are involved. Some people argue that the concept of a separate state for Jews leads inexorably back to the contradiction inherent in Zionism and represents essentially a compromise with the Zionist idea.

This line of thinking, however, is based on false assumptions. First, the ISO does not advocate aseparate Jewish state. An official statement published in the beginning of May 1967 reads:

Self-determination does not necessarily mean separation. On the contrary, we hold that a small country which is poor in national resources, such as Israel, cannot exist as a separate entity. It is faced with two alternatives only – to continue to depend on foreign powers or to integrate itself in a regional union.

It follows that the only solution consistent with the interests of both Arab and Israeli masses is the integration of Israel as a unit in an economic and political union of the Middle East, a union based on socialism.

The restitution of Palestinian rights lost since 1948 would not make self-determination for the Jews geographically impossible. Even in 1947, when Arabs outnumbered Jews by about two to one, the Jews remained numerically predominant in continuous portions of Palestine. At present, the ratio is about five Israeli Jews to three or four Palestinian Arabs. Consequently, even if all Arabs that were displaced in and after 1948 (together with their descendants) were to return to their precise original homes, Jewish self-determination still would not be geographically unfeasible. Actually, the repatriation and rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees must involve mainly industrial and urban projects, the construction of new towns and industries, etc. Before 1948, most Palestinians were peasants with rather small holdings, but in the context of an integrated socialist economy in the Middle East, the geographical area of Palestine will certainly not be devoted primarily to agriculture – other areas are much more suited to this. The region of Palestine will play an increasingly industrial and urban role, with relatively few people employed in agriculture. Thus the idea of resettling the refugees in their exact original location – and as peasants – is scarcely progressive.

Finally, the ISO’s concept of self-determination, far from compromising with Zionism (which insists on an exclusively Jewish state that is supposed to “belong” to all the Jews in the world), actually assumes the overthrow of Zionism. The formula inherent in self-determination is part of a program for a victorious socialist revolution – it has no meaning in any other context And the program must be declared immediately in order to mobilize the people struggling for it; but it will be effected only after the overthrow of imperialism and its allies – Zionism and Arab reaction – in the Middle East. Of course, if one thinks in terms of an independent Palestinian state, then Jewish self-determination within it may lead to a phenomenon now part of Zionism but is conceivable without it – namely, domination of Jews over Arabs. And given existing numerical and socio-economic facts, this would be quite likely even within an independent Palestinian state. Rather man proving the danger of self-determination, however, it shows that the concept of an independent or separate Palestine is dangerous. Conversely, the ISO concept of self-determination, in the context of a united socialist Middle East, does not contain any such danger.

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