those yet to grasp that Israel in its current form is an outrage comparable to apartheid South Africa;
those who recognise this truth but fail (as had many sincere opponents of apartheid) to see the bigger picture of a Faustian bargain with Western elites;
those who say the USA is a vassal – a client state of Israel.
This from an assessment of Winston Churchill in the Independent, January 30, 2015:
In … ‘Zionism versus Bolshevism’, he wrote: “This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, down to Trotsky, Bela Kun, Rosa Luxembourg and Emma Goldman … this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, envious malevolence and impossible equality, has been steadily growing [as] the mainspring of every subversive movement and now this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America have gripped the Russian people …”
However, Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, argues that Churchill was a fervent Zionist … “a fervent believer in the right of the Jewish people to a state … in what we then called Palestine.” Like much of Britain in the Thirties and Forties, however, he adds that Churchill “shared the low-level 1 casual anti-Semitism of his class and kind”.
The two instances of ‘however’ imply a contradiction where none exists. As Gowans’ important new book shows, antisemitism has never stood in the way of support for Zionism. (Nor in the way of Israeli and Western tactical alliances with virulently antisemitic Islamism.) The two arch reactionaries, Churchill and (initially) Hitler,2 both favoured it, and for the same reasons.
With Jews disproportionately represented on the Left – as in the revolutions of 1789 and 1917 – it offered the enticing prospect of draining Europe of ‘bolsheviks and troublemakers’. Better yet, leading Zionists3 like the atheist Theodor Herzl4 dangled the irresistable prize of an Israel not only beholden to but (since gratitude is a famously short lived emotion) forever dependent on its backers in the West.
Or to put it more succinctly, Zionism offered imperialism a beachhead in the Middle East.
In chapter seven Gowans reminds us that:
Attempts by Third World leaders to establish independent control of their economies, in preference to their economies being used as spheres of profit-accumulation for the sole direct benefit of foreign investors, is almost invariably met by the opposition of investor-dominated foreign governments.
The narrow context is the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, and installing by the USA and Britain of a puppet in the form of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah of Iran. Shia clerics – in line with a century old pattern across the Middle East of Islamist5 connivance with the West and Israel – aided the infidel powers because Mosaddegh’s liberal humanism was anathema to their reactionary souls. For their part, Winston Churchill and Kermit Roosevelt were determined to stop in its tracks this democratically elected leader’s mandate to nationalise Anglo-Persian Oil, now known as British Petroleum.
The wider context is an elephant-in-the-room truth ignored by Western media. Subordination of the global south by a few predatory nations, armed to the teeth, did not end with the demise of colonialism. In our age direct rule has given way to the indirect rule of imperialism, defined in a recent post as “the export of monopoly capital and repatriation of profits”.
As a primer on how and why Israel was formed – and why Western rulers remain committed, in the face of mounting public unease6 at the scale of injustice to the Palestinians, to mildly critical but unconditional support for the perpetrator nation – Israel, a Beachhead is to be welcomed.
Chapter one shows how views of antisemitism as socially driven chime with understandings of the human condition espoused by thinkers on the Left, from Robespierre to Lenin, while views of antisemitism as permanently embedded within the human psyche have chimed with the more pessimistic, hobbesian assessments of the Right. It also makes the case, noted above, for Jews as disproportionately represented on the Left: a fact central to the thrust of chapter two, on the ontology of Zionism. Chapter three strikes a balance between brevity and substantive detail in setting out how Israel came into being. While not competing with such seminal works as The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, it gives a thorough and insightful overview of the thinking of those who green-lighted, those who planned, and those who paved the road to Palestine’s 1948 Nakba.
Equally valuable are the chapters devoted to Nasser, Saddam, Syria and Iran, but it is on more general chapters – those first two, and later ones on imperialism and division – I will focus. It is these that make Israel, a Beachhead more than just another worthy tome on wrongs done to the Palestinians; more too than a ledger on wrongs done to the peoples of the Middle East.
Rather, they serve as timely response to those in the pro Palestinian camp who, understandably focused on egregious and ongoing injustices, overlook the significance of what Zionists since Theodor Herzl offered the rulers of the West: a salient from which to control a region vital since the Suez Canal as gateway to India and the far east, and since WW1 for its super-abundance of capitalism’s most prized commodity.7
Equally, these general chapters, their themes informing those more specific, lead by increments to a convincing rebuttal of the notion, vehemently held in some quarters and given a veneer of plausibility by the strength and reach of the Israeli lobby, of the USA as vassal of Israel.
Yes, the waters are muddied by Israel’s status as a nuclear power and, yes, its reach from the Beltway to the British Labour Party and beyond reflects – as do those strops Riyadh goes in for from time to time – a junior partner with sufficient bargaining power to make trouble if crossed. But to claim that Israel is not only independent of but master over Washington – then ‘back up’ that claim with the risible assertion that America fights Israel’s wars – betrays a painfully weak grasp, often as not laced with antisemitism, of what imperialism is.
The ultimate purpose of dominating another country is to secure opportunities for big business to accumulate wealth. The dominated country may provide direct opportunities for wealth accumulation, or be a stepping stone to profit-making opportunities in a third country, without offering attractive opportunities of its own. Such a country may become the target of an imperialist power because favorably placed. Perhaps it bounds important shipping lanes and is prized as a naval base from which the movement of goods can be protected from rival imperialist powers that might choke off the flow. Or perhaps the aim is to position military power at a shipping choke point. Or maybe the territory is close to enticing targets that could be absorbed through military coercion. Maybe the dominated
country is close to another imperialism and attractive for encircling it. There are scores of reasons why an imperialist power might dominate a country that offers no immediate or direct economic benefit, but all are traceable to a perceived economic advantage for the dominating country’s major investors.
Since the riches flowing from such larcenous calculations are (a) at the expense of the peoples of the global south and (b) not shared equally within the predator states, further truths follow:
First, it is necessary to install privileged groupings, beholden to the distant power, within those nations whose resources are plundered. (Or whose labour is exploited at rates no longer available to capital in the north.8) Hence a Shah of Iran or King Hussein of Jordan, both loathed by the populations on whom they’d been foisted. Hence puppet monarchs in Egypt prior to Nasser, in Libya prior to Gaddafi and in Iraq prior to Saddam. Last but not least for now – though Gowans’ list is not exhaustive – hence too the House of Saud.
Second, divide-and-rule, always of the essence, is all the more so in a Middle East whose most numerous people, Arabs, comprise, says Gowans, the world’s second largest ethnic group after China’s Han. Since Arabs, should they transcend their many differences, could control both the gateway to the East and the world’s greatest concentrations of its most important commodity, such a coming together is to be averted by all available means.
(For instance by doing as Britain and France did, and carving the Arab world into artificial states as WW1 synchronised the fall of the Ottoman Empire with the rising importance of oil – which is why on the one hand Nasser’s pan-Arabism, on the other Ba’athist Iraq and Syria, had to be crushed with help from Israel and, in Syria’s case, ‘moderate Islamists’. Or by favouring minorities – Kurd, Alawite, Druze, Maronite – much as a gerrymandered Six County statelet played the orange card whenever Protestant and Catholic workers found common cause in Belfast’s linen mills and shipyards. Or by recognising that of the three currents – Arab socialism, communism and Islamism – vying for hearts and minds on the Arab Street, only that last lends itself, albeit with attendant risks, to as-and-when co-option into imperial designs.)
Third, since the interests of the imperialists and those of their domestic workforces are not the same, promotion and daily maintenance of a fictitious ‘national interest’ at home is also required. This is easy, depressingly so for internationalists. Witness the millions sent to kill and die, in the name of patriotism, in the twentieth century’s two global wars between rival imperialisms. Witness the credulous acceptance of lies, especially those of omission, by rightwing and liberal media alike which fail spectacularly to present the very material interests at stake for the elite. Through these lies ‘our’ wars – and sanctions no less lethal – are sold as humanitarian and even democratic, when they are in fact waged to oust those – the Nassers and Saddams, Ayatollahs and Gaddafis, Assads and Maduros – whose true crime was/is to stand in the way of Wall Street trousering of their countries’ resources.
Fourth and most pertinent – though none of these things operate in isolation – when an opportunity presents itself for placing, as if to right an ancient wrong, a Trojan horse of nation state dimensions in the heart of this Middle East, it is to be grabbed in both hands and defended by fair means or foul.
Even if the consequences do stink to high heaven.
* * *
- Hagiographer Martin Gilbert’s depiction of his subject’s antisemitism as “low level” is pure apologetics. Churchill – a man, like Hitler, of proven courage – displayed all the bigotry and patrician contempt of his class, but the Good Jew/Bad Jew dichotomy forming the wider context of his remarks on Marx, Trotsky et al has its counterpart in the Good Nigger/Bad Nigger of America’s Jim Crow south.
- Ken Livingstone – accosted by a foul mouthed and slanderous John Mann and then expelled from the Labour Party – was correct on Hitler’s early support for the Zionist project. In the McCarthyesque climate gripping the British Labour Party, however, truth has never stood a chance.
- Zionism’s earliest enthusiasts were on the one hand Christians in the corridors of Western power, on the other rightwing Jews who saw antisemitism as rooted in the human condition; independent of and immune to social drivers.
- The atheism of many right wing Jewish as distinct from Christian Zionists points us to the fact that, under strict interpretations of Judaism, only Jehovah gets to say when Jews have sufficiently atoned for sins punished in Exodus to be allowed Home. God has yet to sign off on Israel’s Law of Return!
- I’m using the term Islamism loosely. It generally refers to narrow Sunni interpretations of jihad – on the one hand by the Muslim Brotherhood originating in Egypt, on the other the Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia. My rough and ready usage is to make the more general point of strange bedfellows: willingness of Shia cleric and Salafist alike to do business with the Great Satan when agendas intermittently coincide. Such realpolitik, superficially counterintuitive and normally hidden from view, saw light of day most clearly in cold war Afghanistan (Sunni) and Iran-Contra-gate (Shia) but can be traced on a timeline running from WW1 and Lawrence of Arabia, by way of Mossad and IDF backing of Hamas against Fatah, through to NATO’s use of your taxes and mine to fund those elusive ‘moderate Islamists’ in Syria’s ‘civil war’.
- The camp massacres at Shatila and Sabra in 1982 mark a turning point, after which public as opposed to ruling class support for Israel in the West tilted slowly but surely towards disapproval. This is the context in which the increasingly strident hasbara of the Israel lobby, and weaponising of the antisemitism charge, should be seen.
- I use the term ‘commodity’ rather than ‘resource’. Other than the years between 1973 and early noughties, the USA has been self sufficient in oil. Gowans does a good job of showing that its desire to control production in the Middle East and Venezuela, and supply in the case of attempts to dictate the route of Syria’s pipeline and bully Europe into buying American energy rather than cheaper Russian gas, reflect the geopolitical calculations of the planet’s foremost imperialism rather than fear of shortages.
- The global north’s super-exploitation of labour in the global south barely features in the middle east; more the Indian sub-continent and far east. I refer to it in passing because it is a central feature of modern imperialism.