Marc Perelman interviews Daniel Bensaïd


The final installment of our Daniel Bensaïd mini-series, this interview from September 2004, conducted by Outre-Terre's Marc Perelman, on the Israeli state, Trotskyist anti-zionism, the Fourth International, and the rise of anti-semitism in France:

‘Israel in Israel’

Outre-Terre: The Trotskyists (Trotsky, the Fourth International, its national sections) were hostile to the creation of the State of Israel in the land of Palestine. As Trotsky put it: ‘The attempt to solve the Jewish question through the migration of Jews to Palestine can now be seen for what it is, a tragic mockery of the Jewish people. … The future development of military events may well transform Palestine into a bloody trap for several hundred thousand Jews. Never was it so clear as it is today that the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system’ (July 1940).

A few years previously (in 1937), Trotsky had gone so far as to imagine the assimilation and thus the dispersion of the Jews and their culture (including their traditional language, Yiddish) among their respective countries. There had even been the idea of providing the Jews with a homeland in the USSR: the unhappy experience of Birobijan, which did not seem to win Trotsky’s backing, given he described it as a ‘bureaucratic farce’… More generally, it seemed possible that the advent of socialism would be able to resolve the Jewish question (culture, language…) by way of a generalised assimilation. Trotsky nonetheless did recognise the existence of a Jewish nation capable of maintaining itself by adapting to modernity.

What is your position (and more widely, that of the Fourth International) with regard to the existence of the State of Israel?

Daniel Bensaïd: Trotsky’s position on the ‘mystification’ or the ‘murderous trap’ that a Jewish state would constitute is not an abstract position of principle, but an example of a lucid realism on the possibility that history, as Marx put it, might advance by its bad side. Of course I understand what gave this myth of the refuge-state its strength, a force that it had not had before the genocide even in the communities of central Europe. Indeed, as for many people growing up when I did, the Exodus saga really resonated with me.

But the hypothesis of a ‘trap’ (the risk of a new Massada) has, unfortunately, been confirmed before our very eyes: there is no place on Earth where Jews are less safe than in Israel. So now we have a man like Moshe Lewin, who emigrated to Israel at the end of the 1940s, asking if it would not have been better ‘not to’ (not to create a state bearing the seeds of fresh catastrophes). Of course he had some idea of the answer to this question…

That said, you cannot wipe away history. The last century did take place. There is an Israeli state and a Jewish national reality in the Middle East. No one with their head screwed on can imagine turning back the wheel of history and pushing the Jews into the sea. The first person who attracted my attention to the possibility of the national oppression in the region being ‘turned on its head’ by history (that is, the Jews could one day find themselves in the position of an oppressed national minority) was a Palestinian Arab Trotskyist: Jabra Nicola, a true internationalist.

But the State of Israel, in its current structure, is an ethno-confessional state that was founded (notably on account of its Law of Return) on jus sanguinis (which Germany had just abandoned). It has one of the region’s most powerful armies, and probably also (chemical and nuclear) weapons of mass destruction – in any case, much more probably so than post-1991 Iraq! It militarily occupies territories conquered by force, in defiance of UN resolutions that have repeatedly condemned this occupation since 1967.

Is the perspective of two sovereign states (Israeli and Palestinian) coexisting a step towards overcoming the current murderous impasse? For such a proposal to become a reality it would be necessary to recognise the important disparity between a powerfully armed sovereign state and a protectorate, virtual state surrounded by freshly-built walls and whose territory is lacerated by bypasses, which has no port facilities of its own, and no sovereignty – that is, an ‘occupied territory’

As for the so-called binational state solution, even if it seems unrealistic given the current balance of forces it nonetheless seems to me the most desirable from a historical perspective. This was the original position of many left-wing currents (particularly within the Jewish community) opposed to the 1947 partition. What was at issue was to recognise the linguistic, cultural, educational and collective rights of the two peoples within the framework of a common state structure (inspired by Otto Bauer’s theses on cultural autonomy).

In historical perspective this is no more utopian than the idea of a lasting coexistence between a Jewish state supported to the ends of the Earth by the United States and a subaltern, rump Palestinian state. Before the Oslo Accords were buried, minority voices began again to speak out in favour of such a solution, on both the Jewish and Palestinian side (this latter including Edward Said). On this point you can look (among other things) to Michel Warschawsky’s book Israël-Palestine, le défi binational as well as the documents that he together with Michèle Sibony collected in the volume À contre-chœur : les voix dissidentes en Israël. This book features an interesting postscript by Elias Sanbar expressing the fear that the notion of a binational state could serve as the pretext for a fresh territorial partition instead of introducing a common citizenship based on a rigorous equality of rights.

Outre-Terre: Marxists (the Leninist-Trotskyist current) make a very general appeal for the destruction of states in order to liberate the peoples subjected by them. What does that entail, concretely?

D.B.: The terms of this question are confused. The destruction of states?... Well, Marxists (and it is still necessary to specify which Marxists) were for the destruction of the class structures of the bourgeois state. They were not – and this was a major point of dispute with the anarchists – in favour of decreeing the abolition of the state; instead, they wanted to bring about the conditions where the state would ‘wither away’, or become extinct as a separate body. A century of history has passed since then, and this debate now has to take place on the basis of a much richer experience, particularly if it is to avoid confusing the withering-away of the state with the withering-away of politics in the Saint-Simonian utopia of a simple ‘administration of things’. But that is a whole different story.

Concretely, I do not think that the political tasks of internationalist militants in Israel or in Palestine can be directly deduced from abstract characterisations of the state. Politics is a matter of relations of force, of propitious conjunctures and situations. The central line of march for both sides must begin from the recognition of the historical dispossession (today widely established among the Israeli ‘new historians) and the rights that the Palestinians have been denied. Moreover, the conflict must be posed in historical and political terms and not religious or racial ones: such are the stakes of a more and more difficult struggle. Finally – and this is the logical consequence of my previous point – both sides must recognise that nothing can be solved by either of the protagonists militarily crushing the other.  One of the fundamental conditions of any possible humane solution is the full flowering of the contradictions within both Israeli society and Palestinian society.

In this perspective, the refusenik movements in the Israeli army (starting with those who refused to serve in Lebanon in 1982, or in the Occupied Territories more recently) are more important in practical terms than an isolated position of boycotting Israel on principle.

As for the perspective of a ‘binational’ Jewish-Arab party, that already exists in many minority currents in the Israeli Left that bring together Jews and Arab-Israeli citizens who (at least on paper) belong to the same state. However, if the idea of a common Israeli-Palestinian party is inspiring and has real symbolic appeal, it provides no immediate answers. The unique case of Ilan Halevy is respectable and admirable in certain aspects. But if such individual stances do not represent a historical development or express growing differentiations within each respective society, than they will have little effect on Israeli society, merely showing that there are some heroic Jews who are ‘friends of the Palestinians’ but foreign to their own national reality.

In turn, it is more and more difficult for young Israeli Arabs to participate in Jewish-majority organisations without being taken for collaborationists.

Outre-Terre: Does Israel – which many neighbouring countries designate only using the epithet ‘Zionist entity’ – have the right to borders that are not just more or less elastic boundaries – a pliable, porous, even imaginary frontier? Is the wall dividing up the country an adequate response?

D.B.: It takes some nerve to speak out in favour of legitimate ‘good borders’! I will insist – partition was a disaster for the Jews and not just the Palestinians! But we must start from the existing state of things. There are no criteria that allow us to draw equitable borders. There are no convincing natural frontiers. When the Camp David negotiators were thinking about dividing up the city of Jerusalem, they went to the ridiculous extremes of imagining a vertical, ‘archaeological’ partition attributing this or that elevation to the Jewish state and to the hypothetical Palestinian state, in function of the super-position of their respective places of worship. The drawing of frontiers historically fluctuates in function of wars and relations of force.

If one of the functions of law – however worthy of criticism it may be – is to inject a little objectivity into a dispute, we could at least start from the UN resolutions on dismantling the settlements, and Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories in line with the 1967 borders. The Palestinian Authority, indeed, is asking for nothing more than that in the immediate (the question of the right of return being a different matter to the borders).

Yet each fresh round of negotiations (including the famous Geneva initiative) demands that the Palestinians make further guarantees and further concessions, beyond the ‘borders’ recognised in principle by the ‘international community’!

As for the idea of ‘safe’ borders – well, it is so sinister that it can only spark a smile. It is a new, highly anachronistic expression (in the age of Bush’s ‘war without end’, unlimited in time and space, where the two oceans are not even a safe frontier for the United States) of the fetishism of borders and territory. There can be no safe border so long as the causes of the conflict are not resolved and the wrongs done to the Palestinians put right. Yet instead we are arriving at the concrete translation of the cult of security: the Wall! This wall, which anywhere else would raise an international scandal! A new wall against the outside, which is also, for the State of Israel, the wall blocking it in to its self-made ghetto. What a sad irony of history! The unconditional dismantling of this apartheid wall (and not simply correcting its positioning) is a non-negotiable prerequisite for any discussion of hypothetical future borders. 

Outre-Terre: Israel is a religious state in the sense that its constitution accords primacy to Judaism. But according to the current criteria, it is the only democratic state – or a Marxist might say, the only bourgeois-democratic state –  in the region, in the sense of having a parliament, the free competition of political parties, a free press…

D.B.: This is a totally fallacious argument. Colonial powers were almost always more ‘democratic’ (starting with Victorian Britain or imperial France) than the countries that they occupied or conquered. They always used this argument in order to justify their ‘civilising mission’. Since we are not ‘campists’, there is nothing preventing us supporting Palestinian rights at the same time as fighting the despotic regimes in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and so on. Our comrades have often paid a heavy price for this (with long spells in jail, or even being murdered…) Of course, Israelis do have some valuable democratic rights (unequally applied to Jews and Arabs). These must be defended if they are put in question by Patriot Act-type measures, and also must become equal rights. But they can in no way justify the denial of the Palestinian people’s national and democratic rights.

Moreover, we ought to emphasise the paradox that several ministers of the Sharon government have publicly declared that they would prefer a straight-out (religious) clash with Hamas to the ‘hypocritical’ conflict with the Palestinian Authority. Yet whatever the ulterior motives of either side, having a pluralist Palestinian national movement as an interlocutor (even a corrupt, bureaucratic one), standing for a ‘democratic and secular Palestine’ and not an ‘Islamic Palestine’, was an opportunity that ought to have been taken. An opportunity that the Israeli leadership did everything in their power to bury.

In its constitutive structures (see Nathan Weinstock’s classic book Zionism: False Messiah) the ‘Jewish State’ (the French press does not seem too bothered by this formula giving a state an ethnic and religious definition!) is very much a confessional state and not a secular state founded on a rigorous application of jus soli. That is why Weinstock used to argue for the transitional goal of ‘de-Zionising the State of Israel’. It is no surprise that such a state seeks to ground its legitimacy ever more in its origins, in the myth of its origins. With the regressive movement that rolls back Enlightenment universalism and turns back to the myth of the chosen people (which already Spinoza hacked to pieces), we see Jewish intellectuals like Benny Lévy and Jean-Claude Milner, disappointed by history and politics, seeking to escape from this terrain and instead embrace the atemporal eternity of scripture, founding an ahistorical ontology of ‘being Jewish’. If this diaspora people perpetuated itself against the odds, it did so – as Marx foresaw – through history and not in spite of history.

Outre-Terre: The Fourth International has never hidden its support for Palestinian movements, and at a certain time in the 1970s, the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). What movements do you support today?

D.B.: It is not a question of where our sympathies lie or whom we trust. In Israel as in the Palestinian movements there are pockets of internationalist militants, but they are too weak and too unstable in the current turmoil for it to be possible for us to claim to certify the good conduct of one or another group. If we are sticking to political criteria, then yes, we would prefer to discuss with secular Palestinian movements than fundamentalist ones; though that is not to say that we rule out the possibility of differentiations among the religious movements that express social exasperation as well as a political impasse. This is not a question of our affinities, our preferred tastes. The Islamist movements in question would gladly dissolve the Palestinian people’s national demands (recognised at such cost, and on such a fragile basis, since Oslo) in a nebulous Islamic cause, giving succour to the extremist Israeli leaders’ idea that this conflict is, more than anything else, religious in nature.

Yet the fact that the representatives of the Palestinian movement in France, such as Leila Shahid or Elias Sanbar, make no concession to racist and anti-Semitic demagogy, allows us to demonstrate that this is not a question of opposing one closed, homogeneous community to another, but a political battle. Militants with the same objectives on either side of the border have more in common with each other than a Sharon does with a Warschawsky. .

Outre-Terre: The growing power of Islamist fundamentalism could become a danger to the Palestinians themselves in the coming years, as well as to the Israelis. Does Israel not ultimately represent a rampart for democracy, faced with the rise of radical Islamism? For those who have a good understanding of the debates among Trotskyists, it is rather striking that few criticisms are ever made of the neighbouring anti-democratic Arab countries: that is, where there are no elections and no parties, there is a muzzled press and state anti-Semitism (as in Egypt…), the populations are kept in a permanent state of poverty, slavery (Saudi Arabia), women have an inferior status, and so on.

D.B.: Well, this discussion has to take place in concrete terms. Let’s refresh our memories. We have always maintained that the Palestinian people’s struggle for its national rights would not only involve a struggle against Israel’s colonialist policy, but would also be tied up with an Arab revolution against the corrupt and despotic regimes of the region. The 1970 Black September massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, or what happened to the Palestinians in Lebanon, provided proof enough that we were right on this point, as does Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s complicity with the United States. Moreover, you could make an interminable catalogue of the support we gave to Arab political prisoners and victims of repression (not least our own comrades) in Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Iran, or in Iraq in the days when Saddam was presented as a secular ally of the West. Our women comrades in these countries gave their best efforts to bringing about a women’s movement, often risking lives to do so – notably in Algeria, with the mobilisations against the ‘family code’. While we have systematically denounced colonialist and imperialist policies for ravaging the region, you would struggle to find any evidence of our movement colluding with or taking a complacent stance toward the Ba’athist populist dictatorships or the petro-monarchs.

Outre-Terre: We hear daily evidence of the rebirth of a certain kind of anti-Semitism in France (attacks on synagogues, anti-Semitic insults and violence against Jews). Will that not inevitably lead Jews to unite more closely, for example through the organisation of self-defence groups?  If the rise of so-called radical Islamism changes the world balance of forces, and thus the relations of force in the Middle East, will your organisation make any substantial changes to its positions?

D.B.: The rebirth of a certain kind of anti-Semitism in France (which has several sources) is a fact of which we hear an increasing number of reports – and even if we ought to be cautious about the snowball effect of media rumour, there is definitely something going on. There are enough indisputable facts and figures to raise concerns that the situation really is deteriorating, and this demands heightened vigilance. But Jewish self-defence groups? This hypothesis cannot be entirely ruled out, but it would be the sign of a horrendous historical regression, with everyone organising in communal militias to defend their own kind. Would these groups be juxtaposed with Arab, Muslim, and other self-defence groups? We are (happily) not at that stage. Why not have self-defence groups against racism as such, if necessary, where anti-racists of Jewish, Arab, Armenian or any other background could join together?

It would be troubling to see further confirmation of the communalist logic that prevailed among SOS Racisme and the Jewish Students’ Union on the 5 May demonstrations, refusing to extend their appeal against anti-Semitism to include all forms of racism (as the League for the Rights of Man, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and the MRAP anti-racist movement had demanded). How were people in the banlieue and elsewhere meant to interpret this decision – at a moment when Israeli tanks were pulverising Rafah? Is each community just meant to look out for its own, using egotistical double standards blinding us to each others’ suffering?

Outre-Terre: Rudolf Bienenfeld, a friend of Freud, argued in 1937 that ‘among the non-religious Jews, certain fundamental traits of the Jewish religion continue to exert an influence unbeknownst to them, which determine the direction of their life and their spirituality in spite of their endemic disregard for Jewish traditions. Non-religious Jews form a very particular group precisely on account of this spiritual inheritance from their ancestral religion, which they and those around them maintain however unconsciously’. Does that also pertain to Jews who belong to communist organisations – and to you personally?

D.B.: There is an insufficiently (or entirely) unresolved problem underlying this question: namely, the role of Judaism (as a specific ideology or religious ideology based on the myth of the ‘chosen people’) in the perpetuation of the Jewish people in diaspora. Abraham Leon’s theses on the people-class, whatever their merits, at best shed light on a limited, relatively recent sequence of events (a few centuries) by way of a sociological interpretation. That is, the Jewish people survived on account of its ‘interstitial’ social role, linked to commerce and finance. This hardly convincing sociological determinism takes little account of the influence of the ideological factor (in this case, a religious one) on a people defining itself not by a territory or a state but in a ‘de-territorialised’ way – with reference to the Torah and the Halakha. Judaism conceived in this cultural fashion (even among secular Jews) without doubt played the role of mediating between the dispersed society, the memory of the disappeared state and the project of re-establishing it.

That said, Judaism’s role in this sense did not itself suffice to hold back the logic of assimilation. But the Nazi genocide and the tragic farce of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the USSR meant that the dice had to be rolled again, as the diaspora was redefined in function of the creation of the State of Israel. This is one of the ironies of history, lucidly brought into relief by Isaac Deutscher. I see no reason to think that the communist Jews who underwent the great tests of the twentieth century were untouched by this upheaval. My personal case is of little interest (I explained it in my last book, An Impatient Life). Suffice to say, we can never entirely escape our biographical past, above all when we are the offspring of those who escaped or survived genocide. I was brought up outside of any religion, as a non-Jewish Jew loyal to the tragedy to which my family also paid its blood tribute. It is this loyalty that raises my hackles when communalist spokesmen with dubious claims to represent others try to speak in the name of my loved ones, annexing the memory of all Jewish victims in order to legitimise Sharon’s policy trampling on the Palestinians’ rights. The memory of great suffering does not give unlimited credit to behave as you wish in the future, and nor does it justify blindness towards the suffering you are inflicting on others. On the contrary it ought to make you all the more sensitive about other tragedies, rather than autistically nurturing your own self-righteousness.

Outre-Terre, No. 9, 1 September 2004

Translated from french by David Broder

Read the original french here.

See more from Daniel Bensaïd here.