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Tony Cliff on the roots of Israel’s violence

This article is over 17 years, 8 months old
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and carried out massacres of both Lebanese and refugees Palestinians. Revolutionary socialist Tony Cliff, who died in 2000, wrote this explanation of why Israel acts in a violent and expansionist way
Issue 2011
Tony Cliff
Tony Cliff

Looking back on my own experience in Palestine I can see how today’s horror grew from small beginnings. Zionism, Jewish separateness and the belief in a Jewish homeland, have developed into state violence. My parents were pioneering Zionists, leaving Russia for Palestine in 1902 to join a total Zionist population of a few thousand.

I grew up a Zionist, but Zionism didn’t have the ugly face we see today. However, there was always a fundamental crack between the Zionists and the Arabs. This same crack split Zionists from ordinary people in their countries of origin.

If you look to 19th century Russia it’s clear. In 1891 Tsar Alexander II was assassinated.

The next year Russia’s extreme right organised a pogrom against the Jews. “Kill a Jew and save Russia,” they said. Socialists reacted by calling for unity in fighting tsarism and the right. But there was a second reaction – Zionism.

The Zionists argued, “Jews can’t rely on anyone but ourselves,” and the first of them left Russia for Palestine. Each further pogrom produced the same two reactions. Some joined the general revolutionary movement, others chose separation.

When the Zionists came to Palestine they continued to emphasise their separateness. Zionists took over Arab land, often evicting the occupiers. And the Zionists systematically discriminated against the thousands of Arab unemployed. Although Arabs were at least 80 percent of the population, not one came to my school. My parents were extreme Zionists, and my father told me, “The only way to look at an Arab is through the sight of a gun.” I never shared a house with an Arab. 


The Zionists organised their own trade union, the Histadrut, which raised two political funds. One was called “the defence of Hebrew Labour”, the other “the defence of Hebrew products”.

These funds were used to organise pickets to prevent Arabs working in Jewish enterprises and to stop Arab produce coming into Jewish markets. They did nothing to damage Zionist businesses.

In 1944 we lived near Tel Aviv market. One morning my wife saw a young man go around talking to all the women selling produce. Some he left alone, but others had paraffin poured on the vegetables and their eggs smashed. My wife, who had just come from South Africa, couldn’t believe it. “What’s going on?” she asked.

It was simple. The man checked if the produce was Hebrew or Arab, and destroyed Arab produce. Now, this behaviour was still on a small scale and some Zionists were still talking like left wingers. Zionist publishers printed Lenin and Trotsky, for example.

But the antagonism to the Arabs remained central. No Arab ever entered the kibbutz movement, the so called “socialist” collective farms.

The majority of Jewish-owned land belonged to the Jewish National Fund, whose constitution forbade Arab tenants. This meant in whole areas the original Arab populations were driven out. When I left Palestine in 1946 Tel Aviv, a city of 300,000, had absolutely no Arab residents. Imagine arriving in Nottingham, a similar sized town to Tel Aviv, and finding no English people.

There was obviously enmity between the Zionists and the Arabs. The Zionists needed support and always looked to the imperialist powers that controlled Palestine for help. When Britain occupied Palestine in 1917, the Zionist leaders wrote to the Tory foreign minister Balfour explaining it was in Britain’s interests to have a strong Zionist presence in Palestine. And during the Second World War, as it became clear the US was the main imperialist power, particularly in the Middle East, Zionist leaders switched their focus to Washington.

The Zionists, if not for sale, were always for hire. The logic of Zionism, separatism from the Gentile population, whether in Russia, Poland or Palestine, led to this dependence on imperialism. Nazism and its rise were important. German big business didn’t support Hitler from fear of the Jews, but from fear of the German working class. Both the Jews and German workers were Hitler’s victims.

When the German workers were defeated in 1933 without a mass struggle against Hitler, Zionism was immensely strengthened. Once a movement has a certain momentum it can’t be stopped unless there is a new movement on a much bigger scale. If the Jews couldn’t trust the Germans, it was natural for them to see a Zionist state as the only answer.

Back in Palestine Zionist outrages were developing. The state of Israel, declared in 1948, was accomplished by a terror campaign which drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. The state was born with the “limited” massacre of 240 civilians in the village of Deir Yassin. Men, women and children were slaughtered, some thrown alive down the village well. It was a place I knew well, just a few miles from my home.

The Arabs aren’t the only ones to pay since then. Israel’s constant search for allies has made it increasingly a supplier of military equipment to the world’s most reactionary regimes.

Some people argue oppression always leads to progress. The Jews were horribly oppressed but it didn’t guarantee they became progressive or revolutionary. Indeed, oppression associated with lack of power leads to reaction. When the core of Zionism meant separation from all progressive forces, from the revolutionary forces in Russia to the anti-imperialist forces in the Middle East, the rest of the tale followed naturally.

Now Israel is collaborating with the Phalangists in Lebanon, an openly fascist organisation. I’m not surprised. I remember the 1930s when Begin’s (former Israeli prime minister) organisation, the Irgun, used the Hitler salute and wore the brown shirts.

In 1935 I would never have believed Zionists would murder civilians – they discriminated against the Arabs, that’s all. But in today’s harsh world any crack expands and the crack of Jewish separateness leads to the horrors we’ve seen in Lebanon. Those monstrosities are the logic of Zionism.  

The Arab working class is the only power in the Middle East which can stop Zionism and smash imperialism. The existing states can’t do it.

Tony Cliff’s writings, including a number of articles on the on the Middle East, are available at

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