Oded Nir & Joel Wainwright. Rethinking Marxism, Volume 30, Issue 3. 2018.
Noam Chomsky jokes that when he needs to provide a title for a public lecture more than a year in advance, he can always reuse “The Present Crisis in the Middle East.” That the Middle East will be in crisis, year in and year out, is a cruel constant. Yet the nature and qualities of the crisis are constantly shifting, and we must stay on the track of the forces shaping the political conjuncture. Doing so reveals that the present crisis—though undoubtedly extreme—is by no means an exceptional condition but rather an intensification of the norm. Any attempts to make sense of the recent wars in Syria and Iraq, the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the intensification of Shia-Sunni tensions, or the pretensions of the United States as a broker of “peace” and “stability” all require patient dissection (however much those of us on the Left desire immediate action). The fact is that the Left has been defeated across the entire region. U.S. hegemony is clearly in decline, but resulting political openings have not been seized by the Left. The Arab Spring played out with no substantive gains. The crowds in Tahrir Square have gone; Egypt is firmly gripped by Sisi and the military (with ample backing from the United States). Wars, covert and open, continue unabated.
And at the heart of these conflicts lies the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Palestinians continue to be ground down by the Israeli state, which (notwithstanding Netanyahu’s present political troubles) is firmly held by the Right; there is no significant political Left (Marxist or not) to speak of on either side. The only meaning of the so-called “peace process” is to provide the Israeli state with cover as it continues to extend its domination over the Palestinians. Walls and settlements continue to spread across the West Bank; Gaza is an open prison. The seventieth anniversary of the Nakba has been marked by new mass evictions in the West Bank (Gordon 2018) while IDF soldiers shoot hundreds of protesters in Gaza (Cockburn 2018) and the United States has moved its embassy to Jerusalem (Holmes 2018). Across the region, elites exploit the Palestinian cause for opportunistic legitimation, but this results in nothing concrete for the Palestinian people. One of the many tragic results of the present crisis is that the situation in Palestine props up a variety of authoritarian neoliberal states.
In the face of the present crisis, one might expect a plethora of Marxist analyses of Israel and Palestine. But, in fact, there are few. It is a striking lacuna. In fairness, there are stacks of books by left-wing critics of Israel (e.g., Abunimah 2014) and some brilliant critical analysis of Zionism (e.g., Rose 2005; Butler 2012). One explanation for this lacunae—offered by Chomsky; see the interview in this issue—is that there are practically no Marxists active in U.S. universities anymore. Professor Chomsky has a point, but this gap goes beyond the United States, and there are still Marxists criticizing Israel and/or Zionism both in the United States and elsewhere. Yet when they have done so, it is almost exclusively by criticizing the violent colonization of Palestine and emphasizing the ethical rather than the systemic nature of this process. To make a generalization, in the literature on Israel and Palestine in English, there are hardly any studies of class, relations of production, or the relationship between the political and economic balance of forces over time, and so on. Naturally, there are exceptions, but they illuminate the norm. The failure in this respect of the journal Rethinking Marxism is symptomatic. From a search of the journal’s digital archive of three decades, RM has published practically nothing on Palestine and Israel.
Our basic contention is that a renewed Marxist position is necessary because the political situation is dire and the existing framework for explaining it is ineffectual. Marxism is essential because it is the only mode of social and political analysis capable of grasping capital, nation, and state synthetically. One of our aims is to theorize this lack: that is, to explain why there is no Marxist analysis. The result of the political bankruptcy of the liberal Israeli position is the nightmare of today: perpetual conflict, suffering Palestinians, futureless Israelis. The articulation of a robust leftist position is essential. To generalize in didactic and simplistic terms, the Left has framed the conflict in terms of nation and religion—Israeli/Jew versus Palestinian/Muslim—leaving class and capital aside. The political situation is thus domesticated into familiar categories that leave only one imaginable solution: two separate states. Even if this position was once valid, the territorial basis for a Palestinian state has been systematically destroyed by the Israeli state through the construction of walls, barriers, highways, checkpoints, and other apparatuses of colonization (Weizman 2007; cf., Tartir 2015). Facing these conditions, to chant demands for a Palestinian state reflects either bad faith or a hypocritical false optimism. Recognizing the absence of a two-state solution, we contend, should compel us to rethink Israel/Palestine though categories that cut across national lines.
This is where a Marxist analysis of history, class, and capitalist political economy is crucial. The aim is to grasp Israel/Palestine as a part of a contradictory unity, a differentiated totality, within a world wracked by severe political-economic crises. This implies presenting both diachronic and synchronic alternatives that try to understand each detail within a contradictory totality. The notion of contradictory totality is already implied by the bifurcated object—“Israel/Palestine”—that we have become accustomed to name the problem. But does Israel/Palestine constitute a socioeconomic whole? Certainly not. Grasping this contradictory totality requires, inter alia, studying the formation of capitalist social relations in Palestine. A robust literature examines the political-economic dimensions of Israel and the occupation of Palestine. These and other non-Marxist works lay the critical foundation for a Marxist interpretation of Israel/Palestine as both a specific, constantly changing economic-geographical region and a capitalist society in which the “ordinary” qualities of bourgeois society express unusual characteristics.
Consider the market for labor power. Some Palestinians remain proletarians for Israeli capitalism. But since the early 1990s, “foreign” labor has largely substituted for Palestinian labor, a trend strongly encouraged by the Israeli government (Kemp and Raijman 2008). A 2011 ILO report observes that during the 1990s “a major influx of foreign workers [entered Israel] as substitute for Arab workers from the Palestinian Authority. Many of these foreign workers were illegal and did not possess proper government permits. Many businesses employed foreign laborers in sub-par conditions, denying them basic rights and lowering wages and benefits” (Nathanson 2011, 32). Israeli capital is simply not dependent on Palestinian labor power. By implication, strikes by Palestinian labor cannot play the role that strikes played in the confrontation with South African apartheid (Chomsky 2015, 72-6). Thus, observed geographical and juridical contiguities are misleading: the causes of the Palestinians becoming surplus population are to be sought in the dynamics of global capitalism. The same could be said for the real-estate bubble currently propelling the Israeli urban economy (Cohen 2017). This is not to deny that the Israeli state bears responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight; rather it is to recall that we must situate the Israeli state and society within global capitalism if we seek to understand it. Among other things, this requires rejecting one of the most problematic claims concerning Israel/Palestine sometimes heard on the left: the mystification of the Israeli oppression of Palestinians via the conversion of violence into “spirit” (“the occupation corrupts”). This liberal formula should be demystified. The only system that unifies both arenas—the internal social one and the external national one—is capitalism. The liberal tendency to frame the conflict in religious terms (Jews versus Muslims) is symptomatic of the disavowal of confronting capital.
Our starting point, then, must lie with an honest recognition of the failure of the Marxist Left to produce justice for the Palestinians or even an account capable of explaining the present impasse. To those on the left committed to the immediate defense of Palestine, this may seem like unhelpful theoretical posturing. In response, we emphatically affirm a political commitment to justice for Palestinians, to liberation from occupation. But in the face of the present impasse, it may be useful to take a step back, to question our inherited thinking, and to resituate our commitment within different historical and theoretical trajectories. Where does a Marxist position start?
A Marxist position on Israel/Palestine, we contend, cannot be satisfied with nationalist ambitions—that is, only with Palestinian self-determination—but would situate this demand within a broader analysis of class relations, seeking the transcendence of capitalism. This analysis implies taking account of Palestinian society as a historical expression of capitalist social relations, including the era prior to the creation of the state of Israel as well as the contemporary passivity of Arab and Palestinian elites in the face of the ongoing violence (see, e.g., Shafir 1994; Seikaly 2015; Clarno 2017). A Marxist position would demand: How did the entry of capitalism into Palestine come about? How might we untangle the complex historical and geographical series of exchanges between Zionism and Marxism? How have class relations shaped the oppression of Palestinians? Can a new political project be conceived in which national and class emancipation in Palestine/Israel are more explicitly articulated? Could we narrate the history of Zionism’s crimes against Palestinians in a way that could link them causally to the exploitation of Israel’s citizens? What is the relation of the Palestinian liberation effort to Marxism? What is the position of Israel/Palestine in the capitalist world system today? What does the specific experience of apartheid South Africa—so often cited on the Left as a parallel to Israel/Palestine—teach us about strategies to produce justice? How might space and territory be reorganized to produce geographical justice?
Marxism and Zionism have a long and fraught relationship, extending well beyond the territory of Palestine and Israel. We cannot offer a full genealogy of Marxism and Zionism; there is far too much to say (see, e.g., Greenstein 2009; Hen-Tov 2017). We will consider instead only three brief touchstones. Moses Hess (1812-75), one of the founders of Zionism, was also a major influence on the early formation of Karl Marx’s thinking. Ber Borochov (1881-1917) led Poalei Tzion (the Workers of Zion) and provided major influence on the kibbutz movement of the early twentieth century. A Marxist, Borochov argued that the exclusion of Jewish workers from primary production in the advanced capitalist countries made it impossible for them to participate in proletarian struggle. Between Hess and Borochov, of course, stands Karl Marx (1818-83). Marx’s first foray into the historical-materialist approach was applied to the question of Jewish national rights. In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx (2009) criticized the leftist Hegelian Bruno Bauer (1809-82). In Die Judenfrage, Bauer argued that Jews in Europe should be denied civil rights until they have abandoned Judaism. Marx, an atheist descendent of a line of Rabbis and Jews, forcefully rebutted Bauer. Marx historicized the distinctive social and economic position of Jews in Europe to show that the entire convoluted debate in Bauer’s conception of the “Jewish question” was misplaced and lacked a class politics that considered how religious groups are transformed differentially by the emergence of capitalism. The claim that Marx’s essay is anti-Semitic not only lacks historical sensibility (the concept did not yet exist) but also misses the crucial point that Marx wrote, pace Bauer, in defense of civil rights for Jews. Yet Marx also criticized the limited conception of citizenship then prevailing in Europe, observing that citizenship (formal political emancipation) was insufficient. What was needed, and not only for the Jews, was social transformation: the emancipation of humanity from capitalism. Contemporary critics who seek to undo the Israeli state’s equation of Israeli citizenship and national security with Jewish identity are therefore repeating Marx’s basic insight.
In recent years, the standard bearers of this position among the Israeli Left have been labeled “post-Zionist.” Today, post-Zionism is usually invoked to refer to a group of Israeli scholars who in the late ’80s started publishing historiographical work that contradicted the official Israeli line: Benny Morris, Gershon Shafir, Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappé, among others. Pappé’s (2007) book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine is arguably the high point of post-Zionist scholarship, and his book The Idea of Israel provides an account of the rise and fall of the field (Pappé 2014). Morris’s (1988) essay “The New Historiography” can be seen as a preliminary manifesto of these New Historians (as they are sometimes called). In the essay, Morris explodes a series of widely held Israeli beliefs about the history of Zionism. Special place is reserved in this essay for the pursuit of peace: Zionist and Israeli leaders have never pursued peace with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries very effectively or convincingly, according to Morris, counter to what Israeli historians have been saying. Even if some of the New Historians would refuse the label of post-Zionism (associated today with figures such as Adi Ophir, Ariella Azoulay, and Hannan Hever), it is clear that the post-Zionist intellectual enterprise originates in their critique. Post-Zionism reflects an Israeli version of postcolonial critique, yet with a difference. Post-Zionism still retains a totalizing explanatory horizon, no matter how distorted by its underlying idealism.
To be sure, Israel is a settler-colonial state, yet recognizing this is insufficient for grasping the valences of the present conflict. This important point was established clearly in the 1960s by an anti-Stalinist Marxist organization in Israel (and journal by the same name), Matzpen. The four basic elements of Matzpen’s analysis in the 1960s are elegantly summarized by one of its leading theorists, Moshé Machover (2012, x-xi), in the preface to his collected writings. The first point is, “1. Zionism is a colonizing project, and Israel, its embodiment, is a settler state.” The other three claims differ from many mainstream leftist analyses and bear consideration today:
- Zionist colonization belongs to a different species from, for example, that of South Africa … rather than being based on exploiting the labor power of the indigenous people, it sought to exclude and eliminate them;
- We insisted on the regional context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … the balance of power is heavily tilted in favor of Israel (backed by its imperialist sponsor [the USA]) … This imbalance could only be redressed … as part of a revolutionary transformation of the region…;
- Our regional view … applied not only to the processwhereby it would be resolved but also extended to the form of the resolution itself. Unlike almost all who addressed the issue,we did not believe that a resolution would occur within the confines of Palestine … Thus, we did not advocate a so-called two-state solution in a repartitioned Palestine, nor a “one-state solution” in a unitary Palestine. Instead, we envisaged incorporation of the two national groups … as units with equal rights within a socialist regional union or federation of the Arab East.
Matzpen’s analysis remained relatively marginal within Israel-Palestine and in international Marxism. We should recover these insights and bring them up to date in light of the changes in capitalism (accounting, e.g., for the neoliberal turn and present global crisis) as well as international political dynamics (the maturation and declining hegemony of U.S. imperialism).
From the Matzpen perspective, then, the central point of post-Zionism—Israel is a settler-colonial state—is old news, delivered without sufficient depth of analysis. Yet it should be clear that for all of Matzpen’s appeal to a utopian socialist future, its analysis remains a non-Marxist one; it stops short of relating the analysis of political relations to the contradictions of capitalism. Instructive in this vein is the introduction to the 1999 edition of Peace, Peace, When There Is No Peace, originally published in 1961 (Machover and Orr 1999). In the new introduction—absent from the book’s English translation—the authors report that, in the time that elapsed between 1961 and 1999, they have changed their minds about how they view Zionism: while before they saw Zionism as a movement pitted against British imperialism, now they see Zionism as simply part of the colonial project. The missing term here is the post-Zionist revision of the history of Zionism, a line that Matzpen joined somewhat belatedly with this new introduction.
The insufficiency of the settler-colonial framework is also clear in the case of Ilan Pappé. Pappé (2017, 13) writes that “the tale of Palestine from the beginning until today is a simple story of colonialism and dispossession, yet the world treats it as a multifaceted and complex story—hard to understand and even harder to solve.” Since, from the vantage of its victims, colonialism is a tale of loss, violence, and violation, he is certainly right. Yet from the vantage of all those who would struggle for justice, collectivity, and another future, Pappé’s claim is facile. There has never been, from this vantage, “a simple story of colonialism and dispossession.” Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, the conditions of each colonial society are particular; the specific complexities that comprise them matter for those who wish to produce alternative worlds. One recent non-Marxist statement of this principal is provided by Rachel Busbridge (2018, 110). Busbridge contends that defining Israel as a settler-colonial state “promises to rejuvenate the Palestinian struggle under the prescriptive banner of decolonization,” yet “this is where the most strident limitations of the settler-colonial paradigm come into view, due to, at best, underdeveloped reflection on the possibilities and practicalities of decolonization and, at worst, connotations deriving from its contextual point of origin flattening out important local historical and socio-political specificities.”
Attentiveness to particularity requires historicizing Zionism anew. Zionism emerged in the nineteenth century as a utopian politics aiming for the liberation of a subaltern transnational proletariat through the formation of a new society. To appreciate the tragedy and prospects for change in Israel and Palestine, it will be insightful to consider Zionism as a failed project of collective liberation. The realization of this political movement through the colonization of Palestine and the reorganization of Zionist society as a capitalist nation-state signaled the end of the utopian element.
Any sophisticated Marxist insists that history’s march requires constant renarration. Only through the efforts of renarration are we able to represent the present as a space of collective historical practice, as a space in which the tensions of ever-changing subjective experience point toward objective systemic contradictions as a space of struggle over the future. For instance, the debates within the Marxist Left over the legacies of the 1968 revolts attest precisely to the continuous need to renarrate history as borne by history’s movement itself. Yet when the political Left—including many Marxists—address Israel and Zionism, the commitment to renarrating history weakens. The same narratives are repeated with little variation: Zionism is seen as a colonial movement that has expropriated Palestinian land, and the state of Israel is seen as a direct continuation of this history, oppressing, dispossessing, and exploiting the Palestinians. To explore new historical narratives of Israel and Zionism does not mean a repudiation of these narratives. The veracity of their factual basis is not questioned here. Nor is there an implied abandonment of the ethical stance immanent to this historical account, that of an uncompromising demand for justice for the Palestinians. Rather than opposing these historical accounts, a commitment to narrating this history anew can translate it into a political project that resonates more strongly with popular concerns and contemporary realities.
Yet for those who are committed to a Marxist perspective, our call to historicize post-Zionism and renarrate the history of Zionism may cause disorientation: a troubling of one’s political allegiances, a threat of losing one’s political bearings. For post-Zionism was at its most influential precisely at the same time that the neoliberal transformation of the Israeli economy was beginning to take place. That both of these elements—neoliberalization and post-Zionism—share a deep antagonism to the nation-state and its institutions could be taken as a sign of the link between the two. The material or institutional connection between the attack on the state and the Israeli occupation has never been very difficult to find, even though few scholars have examined it in any detail. The wholesale liquidation of Israeli social protections and centralized economic planning drove poor Israelis to live in West Bank settlements, as Daniel Gutwein notes. One implication is that coastal Israeli land, on which state-subsidized agriculture was thriving, became a goldmine for private capital rent extraction in the 1980s. But the implications are most significant with respect to the settlements spilling across the West Bank. Here is Gutwein’s (2006) argument:
The settlements project in the Territories and the rapid growth of economic inequality in Israel have been complimentary foundations of the social and political power relations that the Right has constructed since 1977 to secure its hegemony. Regarding the universal welfare state as one of the main sources of power of the Left, the Right has used Thatcher-like practices to liquidate the welfare state through privatization and commercialization of its services. Naturally, this policy initially affected mainly the lower classes. Accordingly, in order to offset the losses it inflicted on its voters, the Right has constituted a compensatory mechanism by splitting Israeli society into rival interest groups … [and has] worked to undermine the universal welfare state and replace it as suppliers of partial substitutes to its gradually liquidated services … [As] the universal welfare state was liquidated in [the area of] pre-1967 Israel, an alternative sectorial welfare state was constructed in the Territories. The enormous benefits which the “Land of Settlements” offers in housing, education, health, taxation, infrastructure and employment, have actually become a mechanism which compensated the lower classes for the damages inflicted upon them by the privatization of welfare services in Israel.
From this perspective the illegal program of constantly expanding settlements becomes an attempt to geographically solve the social contradictions generated by neoliberalism—a spatial fix where political economy reinforces ideology. A Marxist view could therefore see post-Zionism as unintentionally useful for the champions of neoliberalism and the dissolution of working-class economic protections while inadvertently supporting the settlement enterprise and thus sabotaging the achievement of the peace in whose name it was acting, as we argue below.
The post-Zionist narrative could be seen as the intellectual wing of the Israeli Left’s political project of the 1990s: renarrating history in a way that could help achieve the goal of peace. A new conception not only of Israel’s origin is of course necessary in any such effort—hence the centrality of debates over the crucial 1947-9 period—but also of its end: the two-state solution. Cast in this way, the so-called “stalling of the peace process” (a.k.a., “the failure of Oslo,” the “loss of the roadmap”) signals the failure of the political moment that both inspired and sustained the new historiography. The near-total dissolution of the Israeli Left since 2001 has left post-Zionism without purchase. Much the same could be said for the Palestinian Left and Palestinian nationalism (see Khalidi 2018). And no significant Marxist organization has replaced the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular Marxist-Leninist organization founded in 1967 (see Leopardi 2017), and the Marxist analyses of the conflict from the Palestinian side.
The 1990s, with the rise and decline of the peace movement and post-Zionism, can be interpreted as a delayed response to this reality, a break in the Israeli conception of the situation, out of sync with history. Hence the swiftness of post-Zionism’s collapse and its participants’ challenge in explaining its failure (see, e.g., Pappé 2014, chap. 11-2). Put otherwise, the emergence of post-Zionism reflects the delayed afterlife of the defeat of the Israeli Left in the 1970s. While works from this genre are superior to those resulting from Hess’s Zionist turn in the 1850s, they lack Marx’s critique of political economy.
In fairness, the post-Zionists have at times implied that their project requires a Marxist counterpoint. For example, Chomsky and Pappé’s (2015, 45) book On Palestine—principally a series of exchanges between them—laments the absence within post-Zionist and anti-Zionist work
of any socialist discourse from the conversation about Palestine. This absence is one of the main reasons the so-called peace camp in Israel (and the same is true regarding the lobbyists on J Street in the United States) has no issue with neo-liberalism. This worldview is not opposed to Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories but has no position on the harsh economic and social oppression that does not distinguish between a West Bank inhabitant and an Israeli citizen … The absence of this angle also weakens our ability to understand the Oslo Accords, the creation of the PA, projects such as People to People, and the maintenance of the occupation by EU and USAID money as neoliberal projects. Economic elites supported the “peace process” because it was perceived to lead to an economic bonanza.
We agree fully with Pappé here. Yet what is curious and telling in this passage is its use of present tense to describe realities that were fully apparent in the 1990s, when post-Zionism peaked in influence. This passage should then be read as a self-critique, if perhaps an unconscious one—a retrospective reflection upon a specific failure of the post-Zionist writings of the 1990s.
The crisis of peace as a political project made challenges to post-Zionism grow stronger in Israel in the last decade. The heading “post-post-Zionism” (as used by Assaf Likhovski, Boaz Neumann, and others) designates a host of new scholarly approaches that abandon the post-Zionist commitment to Palestinian liberation. Instead, post-post-Zionist scholarship produces historical narratives that are like the proverbial Hegelian night: all cows are gray, making it impossible to distinguish the oppressed from their oppressors and reinventing the ideological myth of apolitical scholarship. Against this, the urgency of renarrating Zionism for a new Israeli political project on the left is thrown into sharp relief and becomes even more evident. Surely Marxism can rise to meet the challenge of post-post-Zionism?
We must try to produce an explanation for this curious state of affairs: a global Left for which the Palestinians are a cause célèbre, yet, at least since the late 1990s, there has been no substantial leftist political project in Israel/Palestine and a near absence of Marxist writing on the topic. It should be stated at the outset that no such “Marxist” position could exist prior to the historical force field in which it is formed. Rather, a universal dimension must always appear in the guise of particularity, as Žižek’s (2000, 168-9) more Hegelian formulation has it. A certain standpoint can become revolutionary and then cease to be so, depending precisely on the movement of history. The current lacuna should therefore make us search for what has disappeared—or for what is no longer revolutionary even if it once held that potential. So our diagnosis should start by asking what the Marxist position on Israel/Palestine was and what projects sought to radically transform Israeli and Palestinian societies.
One explanation would date the disappearance of a socialist alternative to 1989 with the collapse of the USSR and what used to be called the Second World. Drawing a political analogy between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel/Palestine—an analogy taken up somewhat differently by Andy Clarno (2017)—means that one must turn a blind eye to the fact that an alternative to capitalism was still nominally present in the South African case (through Cuban support for the African National Congress’s struggle) while an alternative is wholly absent in the case of Israel. The absence of an alternative way of life does not simply imply a blockage of our historical imagination; it also means an actual problem for political struggle: revolution playing again and again into the hands of capitalism, as the Arab Spring demonstrated yet again.
Still other explanations are possible. This explanatory multiplicity should not be seen as a problem, nor should it be ascribed vaguely to overdetermination (Althusser 2005, 87-128). Rather, we should treat the elaboration of multiple explanations as a reflection of different commitments and conceptual levels: what is visible from one analytical perspective is invisible from others. Crucial here is Edward Said’s non-Marxist contribution to our (Anglophone) understanding of the Palestinian struggle for emancipation. Said’s work contributed to the shifting of Leftist interpretations of Palestine away from totalizing Marxist explanations and toward a liberal multiplicity of critical perspectives whose unstated locus ultimately lies in cultural difference. Moreover, the East/West dichotomy that grounds Said’s analysis of Orientalism does not permit grasping the distinctiveness of capitalist imperialism (e.g., the centrality of market domination and the importance of imperialism in resolving capital’s contradictions).
Now we arrive at another explanation: post-Zionism. We claim that post-Zionism is implicated in the transformation of capitalist social relations. This claim entails a consideration of how a cultural and political transformation is related to a transformation in the economic infrastructure or base. The attempt to bring about a more effective pursuit of peace, which guides many of the post-Zionists, is not unimportant in this respect. As Nir (2018) argues, one should see the pursuit of peace as a vanishing mediator for the reconstitution of Israeli society along neoliberal lines. The vanishing mediator paradigm, based on the Hegelian ruse of reason, was developed by Jameson (2008, 309-43) and further elaborated by Žižek (1991, 179-227). It is meant to provide a historical-materialist account of historical transformation, avoiding two common pitfalls: idealism (or the notion that ideas themselves somehow magically transform the material world) and vulgar Marxism (or the notion that symbolic coding and struggle is always epiphenomenal to, or merely derivative of, the “real” material transformation). The mediator that vanishes after it has facilitated material change is constituted of three distinct moments in Jameson’s vanishing-mediator schema. In the first moment, a goal (read: superstructure) that was implicit and secondary in the old system is made explicit, and the old means (read: infrastructure) of achieving it are denounced as ineffective. In the second moment, new means are elaborated to achieve this old goal. This inevitably means the founding of new social practices and forms. In the third moment, the old goal simply vanishes, leaving us with the new means or social form (Jameson 2008, 330-2). In this light, one could interpret the pursuit of peace in the 1990s as a vanishing mediator for the neoliberal reforming of Israel and Palestinian society. Here, post-Zionism played a key role in the second moment of the vanishing mediator: following Morris’s accusation that national efforts to achieve peace were insincere or otherwise ineffective, post-Zionism elaborated new means by which peace was to be achieved. What followed was no less than a wholesale reeducation of Israeli subjective sensibilities in order to avoid state institutions; this reeducation argued that the state’s ineffective pursuit of peace was related to its failure to address social antagonisms internal to Israeli society. In other words, post-Zionism played a crucial role in instilling a new set of ideological practices that no longer relied on mediation of social tensions by state institutions. It was this transformation—whose relation to neoliberalism could not be named at the time but becomes clear in hindsight—that made Israelis willingly cooperate in the dismantling of Israeli welfare policies, offering no resistance to the disappearance of social protections and the nation-state’s broad commitment to the economic well-being of its citizens. The subsequent disappearance of peace as a political goal around which a massive Left could coalesce only strengthens the view that the 1990s pursuit of peace was a vanishing mediator for the neoliberal transformation of Israel’s social structure.
To argue that the post-Zionist intellectual project is related to the advent of neoliberalism does not imply an abandonment of the commitment to Palestinian emancipation, nor does it detract from the post-Zionist achievement (for the post-Zionists did succeed in moving history along, even though not as they had intended). But it does commit one to a search for new theorizations, historical narrations, and collective projects. More importantly, it helps us trace the fate of the lost Marxist position that we set out to find. For it is precisely the two-state solution that has usually been identified with the Marxist Left. That was the case on the Palestinian side, as Raja Khalidi (2018) argues in his essay for this symposium; and that was the case on the Israeli side, as Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan (2018) note. Prior to Israeli statehood, communist or socialist movements opted for one-state solutions, as for example in the cooperation efforts that characterized the non-Zionist Palestine Communist Party, described in detail in Musa Budeiri’s (2010) work or in the binationalism of the Zionist Young Guard movement. But after the Israeli state became a fact, it was the two-state solution or “peace” that became the goal of such movements, long before peace had gained its 1990s status as the central goal of the Left. In other words, it is precisely the pursuit of peace that used to characterize the Marxist position, which has since the 1990s been universalized. Everyone, including the Right, pays lip service to achieving peace today. We can therefore explain the absence of a Marxist position on Israel/Palestine: what was once a revolutionary position has performed its historical role, though it failed to achieve what it really set out to do. The Marxist position has therefore disappeared not through its abandonment but through the universalization of one element: peace between two states.
Our position does not entail an embrace of Zionism and an abandonment of Palestinian liberation as a goal. To present Zionism and post-Zionism as the only two possible stances is precisely to preclude their double negation—a conservatism common to both post-Zionists and the Right. The inevitable conclusion is that we are in dire need of a new Marxist position and a new political project. It is to fulfill this mandate that we organized this special issue. Its contributions should not be seen as different elaborations of one or another Marxist line; they all deviate from an older way of thinking about Israel/Palestine. In the absence of a Marxist position or living leftist project, the thread common to all of them is simply to rethink Palestine/Israel in new ways, suggesting new historical narratives and new analytical paradigms that could lead to new political projects.
The essays by Nitzan Lebovic (2018), on political melancholy, and Raja Khalidi (2018, 368), who surveys the “triumph of capitalism and unfettered marketization over justice and national rights for Palestine,” approach these concerns from different perspectives. These essays can be seen as part of a new effort to reopen for discussion the question of anticolonial national-liberation movements and their transformative horizons. Khalidi argues that it is now evident, “however unacceptable any of the alternatives might have been, Palestinian communists’ and nationalists’ diehard belief in the necessity and inevitability of the two-state solution has been, at best, misplaced and, at worst, deceptive toward the Palestinian people’s interests” (381-2). The pact with the bourgeois national struggle was thus misguided; persistent harping on reified national sentiment is meaningless. Khalidi’s essay demonstrates that it is impossible to simply “add” a class-struggle perspective to existing theorizations of the Palestinian struggle. Rather, its renarration from an anti-elite perspective would require seeing the development of capitalism and resistance to it as the engine of this history: “The process that has had perhaps the most insidious effect on the prospects for liberation in any form is the relentless advance of Palestinian capitalism with a liberal face. This advance has empowered the formation of distinct social forces whose material interests, with every new paycheck, housing loan, and consumer fad, appear less and less dependent on and concerned with a successful national liberation” (371-2). Khalidi thus provokes us to renarrate this history with a different emancipatory horizon in mind.
Sherene Seikaly (2018, 404) notes that the study of Palestine’s economic development remains almost nonexistent. Her essay ties this lacuna to the current political impasse: “To continue reveling in the marriage between national consciousness and politics reifies colonial epistemologies. Moving beyond nationalism as both the means and ends of politics is long overdue.” By considering this seldom-explored capitalist history, Seikaly seeks to de-reify the emancipatory imaginary. Seikaly’s approach remains stubbornly ambivalent in its commitments, refusing to either condemn or praise Palestinian capitalists for the contemporary plight. She argues, for example, that the absence of sustained Palestinian capitalist economic progress hurt the national liberation effort. In their contribution, Bichler and Nitzan (2018, 418)—well-known authors of a series of essays on the so-called “weapondollar-petrodollar hypothesis,” concerning Middle East conflict and the political economy of oil and weapons—survey their own research trajectory, providing an account of the “[b]iography of [their] [r]esearch.” Their essay offers a retrospective reflection on the development of their arguments, bringing some of them up-to-date with a focus on Israel/Palestine.
The essay by Amir Locker-Biletzki (2018) explores the limits of the settler-colonialism framework for an analysis of Israel through a critique of Gershon Shafir’s (1994) landmark study, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: 1882-1914. Locker-Biletzki argues that Shafir’s narrative, while indebted to historical materialism, reaches its limits in its adoption of a settler-colonial approach. To address this, Locker-Biletzki renarrates episodes from Shafir’s history to elaborate on immanent class alliances that cut across Palestinian and Israeli lines. The aim is to show that an alternative approach that supplements Shafir and shifts the emphasis toward class processes can provide a more coherent and compelling account of the early twentieth century.
We must reemphasize that these contributions should not be read as definitive statements of the Marxist approach but as possible starting points for the elaboration of one. They offer a constellation of analytical possibilities that open up new avenues to think about Israel/Palestine and its history. Nothing could be more urgent.