Endless Conflict of Oppressed Groups

LIKE HISTORICAL movements in general, imperialism doesn't just go away when it's finished happening. It continues to have effects long after its perpetrators are dead, because it sets the terms on which subsequent battles are fought and the terms in which the fighters view themselves.

Nowhere is this plainer than in the Middle East. At least from 1948 until 1967, the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors didn't fall into the classical pattern of conflict between imperialists and their opponents, one powerful country seeking to defend its economic and political resources by exploiting weak countries' workers and their resources and controlling their government. To be sure, the great powers of the world took an interest in the Middle East, and had no objection to trying to turn its people's suffering to their own advantage. England and France, alarmed by Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal, were happy to join Israel in invading Egypt.

The United States, viewing Israel as a bridgehead of Western sentiment--"a bulwark against the non-Christian world," right-wing publisher William Loeb once called it--was happy to provide Israel with most of the arms and diplomatic support it needed. The Soviet Union, evidently sharing the United States' view, was happy not only to replace the U.S. as Egypt's supplier of arms and help with the Aswan Dam when John Foster Dulles grew disgusted with Egyptian president Nasser's neutralism and nationalizations, but also to go the United States one better, sending technicians where the United States sent arms.

And the selectively revolutionary consciousness that didn't lead China to express even much verbal support for Chile's Popular Unity government led it to express unlimited support for whatever actions Palestinian guerrillas might take--actions which have ranged in the past from defending refugee camps from Israeli "reprisals" to blowing up schoolbuses with children on board.

Even in peacemaking, big powers are generally more concerned with their own interests--with scoring prestigious victories and making sure their big oil companies find adequate supplies--than with making peace. The first cease-fire agreement in the latest Middle East war was a case in point, according to Roger D. Fisher, professor of Law and a former negotiator in the Middle East. More interested in a headline-making announcement than in a cessation of hostilities, the big-power negotiators left it ambiguous when the cease-fire was to take effect, leading to claims and counter-claims of illegally continued fighting, the isolation of Egypt's Third Army long after fighting was supposed to have stopped, and unnecessary deaths to which the end may not yet be in sight.


BUT THOUGH the big powers have exacerbated and made possible the escalation of the Middle East conflict, the conflict would still be there even if they kept out completely. And in the Middle East itself, classic patterns of interpretation aren't adequate either. Arab leaders often think in terms of fighting imperialism and racism, and liken their cause to that of South African blacks and people emerging from colonial subjugation. Israeli leaders think the same way. "Zionism is one of the world's oldest anti-imperialist movements," Yosef Tekoah, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Countil on October 21.

It aims at securing for the Jewish people the rights possessed by other nations...Zionism was not born in the Jewish ghettoes of Europe, but on the battlefield against imperialism in ancient Israel. It is not an out-moded nationalistic revival but an unparalleled epic of centuries of resistance to force and bondage.

It's not surprising that each side in the Middle East conflict should see itself as struggling for national salvation, resisting force and bondage with epic courage. For historically, each side is.

Although it had other roots as well, the Zionist movement grew primarily out of life in imperial Russia. Restrictions on their geographic settlement and economic activity, as well as a religion and language of their own, made the Jews of Russia and Czarist Poland almost a nation, separate from the Russians, Poles, and other minorities around them. Although few people led particularly comfortable lives under the czars, toward the end at least, the Jews were probably most oppressed of all. Because they lived in cities, because they were traditionally the middlemen in Russia's feudal economy, and because when the emancipation of the serfs and the growth of banking and credit began to undermine the feudal economy, the Russian government closed most other doors to Jews.

They found their position in Russian life towards the end of the 19th Century even more marginal than it had been before. In 1887 a government inquiry found that "90 per cent of the Jews are a proletariat of such poverty and destitution as is otherwise impossible to see in Russia." Nevertheless, peasants who weren't much better off--anti-semitic by religious tradition and education; still resentful of the role Jews had played as retailers, the most visible representatives of an oppressive economy; themselves frightened by deep social change; and egged on by a government itself anti-semitic and fearful that peasant rage might find more meaningful outlets--conducted anti-Jewish pogroms unmatched between the Crusades and the Nazi concentration camps.

Millions of Jews left for the United States, thousands of Jews became revolutionary activists, and thousands more, convinced as even a lifelong internationalist like Lev Trotsky was to become convinced that Jews could only find economic purposefulness and personal security in their own country, left for Israel.

OF COURSE, there were millions of Arabs whose country was already Palestine. Most of them were peasants, in many cases working for absentee Turkish or Arab landlords. For awhile, it seemed as though Jewish settlers would just try to acquire Arab tenants or laborers and replace the Turks, much as other colonists elsewhere replaced native exploiters of labor, even though the first stirrings of Arab nationalism--directed against the Turks--were beginning to be felt in Palestine. Baron Edmond de Rothschild poured considerable amounts of money into buying up land and settling Jews on it, with Arab peasants continuing to do the work. If this sort of thing had continued, Israel might have developed--if it developed at all--as a state close to the South African model: an upper class made up of one race exploiting the labor of an oppressed race, which strives by strikes and occasional revolts to attack and eventually to expropriate its expropriators.

But this kind of exploitation never developed much in Israel at all, at least before the 1967 war. After that war, Israel's control of large amounts of occupied territory inhabited by Arabs led Israeli employers to hire some low-salaried migrant Arab workers, even as occasional government-sanctioned settlements in the occupied lands began creating new conditions that any subsequent peace negotiations would have to take into account.

Both these practices provoked sharp debate in Israel. But they didn't affect most inhabitants of the occupied territories, who went on living in the same small villages or miserable refugee camps they'd always lived in. Most of those who were somewhat integrated into Israel's economy didn't feel exploited enough--at least so far--to answer the Arab states' call for a strike of Arab workers during last month's war.

In the early years of this century, though, the issue of Jewish exploitation of Arab labor didn't even arise very much because a second wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe--fleeing a new wave of pogroms and especially the suppression of the Russian Revolution of 1905--consisting mostly of Zionists determined to be productive themselves and convinced that if they didn't exploit Arab workers, there wouldn't be any conceivable obstacle to unity with them.

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