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Imperial Israel?

In response to:

Israel: Three Months of Yom Kippur from the January 24, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

In his January 24 article, Bernard Avishai asks (in confident parentheses): “does anyone really believe all that ‘Trot’ nonsense about Israeli ‘imperialism’?” Presumably he is inviting us to join him in lifting a well-educated eyebrow at the old idea that Israel is really Western colonial power in a new guise. But there are many forms of imperialism; The Guardian for February 9, 1974, has this inconvenient Reuters report:

Plans have already begun for the building of a Jewish city in the southern Golan Heights, the Israeli news agency Itim reported today, quoting Jewish settlers on the Heights as saying that the building of the city, which is to be called Kuneitra, is expected to begin in the summer.

Kuneitra is also the name of the former Syria garrison town in the Golan Heights, which is now a ghost town. The master plan for the city is being prepared by the town planning department head at the Housing Ministry, Hanan Mortens, who built the new development towns of Arad and Carmiel.

The Golan settlers have also called for the authorities to speed up the plan to invest between £15 and £18 millions to double the Jewish population in the region.

Now, my guess is that the Syrians will have difficulty (we know their backwardness at analysis) in distinguishing between this new Israeli Kuneitra and an imperialist venture, and I must admit that I would be hard pressed to explain the difference to them. I therefore look forward, Bernard, to your clarification: I don’t want to be “old Trot.”

Richard Bevis

The University of British Columbia

Vancouver, Canada

Bernard Avishai replies:

I regret that my admittedly glib remark left Mr. Bevis’s eyebrow unmoved. However, until he demonstrates a greater command of what is meant by the term “imperialism,” I doubt if I could raise it with a jack.

Israeli settlement on the Golan Heights—of which this town is but a new development—is of course a contentious issue and, I believe, an unwise and unnecessary project. But short-sighted as this policy may be, it is rooted in a coherent security strategy which, although somewhat anachronistic, has been evolved in response to forty years of raiding, harassment, shelling, and invasion. The Syrians, unlike Mr. Bevis, have never had any apparent difficulty in appreciating the Golan’s utility and importance; gratuitous remarks about their “backwardness,” implying my racism, not-withstanding.

The real question, moreover, is not Syrian perception or misperception, but whether there are so many “different forms of imperialism” that the term degenerates into a synonym for badness. Mr. Bevis may add pedantry to my shortcomings, but Hobson, Brailsford, Lenin, Hilferding and the rest seemed to believe they were being more specific.

Imperialism refers to that process by which a metropolitan capitalist class in a mature market society fashions and pursues essential interests in far-flung, less developed hinterlands; this in order to overcome inpediments to the realization of conventional standards of profit—i.e., the hinterland intensifies the rate of surplus value by providing cheapened factors of production, especially labor, and hence more rewarding outlets for existing capital formations. Territorial annexation or formal political control, although often instruments of imperialism, are hardly its central intention.

In this light, surely, the identification of Israeli Golan settlements (moshavim and kibbutzim) with imperialism is scandalous. It is quite like accusing the Mormons of imperialism when, in setting Utah, they showed little human sympathy for the native Indian population. Imperialism, again, does not mean moral failure.

But there are, as Mr. Bevis pointed out, other more standard “Trot” allegations; prominent among them is that Israel is a tool of Western, particularly American, imperial designs, originally implanted into the Middle East in order to perpetuate an exhausted colonial system. This must give Sadat, Faisal, Hassan, Hussein, Bourguiba, Glubb Pasha, and David Rockefeller a good chuckle. Other “chosen people” theories promulgated with reference to Jews pale by comparison. And Mr. Bevis was shrewd to give his eyebrow a little more play on this one.

The demagogic identification of Zionism with imperialism is not new; it is one of those tenacious slanders which has made the “socialism of fools” so colorful. Its resurrection by the PLO to ring in the ears of Vietnam’s generation was cynical and yet predictable; but those credulous people who have picked up the chant ought to know better.

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