Israeli anarchism: statist dilemmas and the dynamics of joint struggle.

Author:Gordon, Uri


This article examines anarchist activities and positions in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and addresses some under-theorised dilemmas that they raise around joint struggle and active solidarity with national liberation struggles. The first part of the article begins with a critique of the scant anarchist polemical writing on Palestine/Israel, which reveals a pervasive reliance on 'old-school' anarchist formulations and a lack of attention to actual struggles on the ground. At the root of these difficulties, I argue, lies the inadequacy of traditional anarchist critiques of nationalism for addressing what seems to be the overriding dilemma in the present context--the question of statehood for a stateless people. As a response, I examine four reasons why anarchists can, in fact, support the statist independence claims of Palestinians and, by extension, of other peoples under occupation. The second part of the article analyses three threads of intervention present in the activities of anarchists and their allies in Israel/Palestine--linking issues, direct action and grassroots peacemaking. The goal here is to examine how the global agendas of contemporary anarchist politics receive a unique local articulation within the context of a joint struggle, and to expose the insights afforded by the experience of Israeli anarchists to social struggles elsewhere.


Issue 13:2 of this journal featured Aaron Lakoff 's piece 'Israeli Anarchism--Being Young, Queer, and Radical in the Promised Land', an interview conducted in February 2005 with Yossi Bar-Tal of the Alternative Information Centre, who is also active in various Israeli anti-authoritarian initiatives such as Anarchists Against the Wall and Black Laundry (Lakoff 2005). While informative in its portrayal of the activities and approaches taken by anarchists in Israel/Palestine, (1) the interview's brevity and inevitably first-person, conversational frame still leaves a good deal of room for a more analysis-driven approach to anarchist activism in the region, and for engagement with some theoretical issues that arise from the special situation that activists face in this context.

The purpose of this article, then, is to examine anarchist responses to the conflict in Palestine/Israel through two lines of inquiry: theoretical and empirical. The first regards anarchist attitudes to national liberation and to solidarity with the non-anarchist agendas of peoples struggling against occupation. Here, the primary issue is the apparent contradiction created by the anarchist commitment to support the ongoing struggles of oppressed constituencies on the latter's own terms--which in the case of Palestinian liberation would inevitably entail support for the creation of a Palestinian state. This would seem to contradict both anarchism's anti-statist positions and its objections to nationalism. In addressing these dilemmas, I begin with a critique of existing anarchist literature on Israel/Palestine, and briefly review the anarchist critique of nationalism and the traditional distinction between the 'nation' and the 'folk'. I go on to argue that there are at least four separate reasons why anarchists can in fact support the Palestinian struggle despite its statist implications.

The second, empirical line of inquiry regards the ongoing anarchist activities in Palestine/Israel. Here, rather than engaging in a merely descriptive exercise, an attempt is made to offer an analytical framework which situates these activities within the context of three threads that characterise the contemporary anarchist movement on a more global scale. These are (a) the linking, in practice and theory, of different campaigning issues and axes of social antagonism through an overarching agenda of struggle against domination and hierarchy; (b) the ethos of direct action and civil disobedience which emphasises unmediated confrontation with social injustices and community self-empowerment; and (c) the construction of alternative modes of social organisation and interaction which have both practical value (in contributing directly to the creation of a different society) and educational/propaganda value (in displaying and exemplifying the validity and practicability of anarchist visions). In our case, this means the extension of the constructive logic of direct action to efforts at grassroots peacemaking. The discussion, through concrete examples, of each of these threads has two goals. First, to trace the way in which the emergent global framework of contemporary anarchism is reflected and receives unique articulation in the Israeli/Palestininan setting; and second, to point to a number of anarchist issues and dilemmas--e.g. nonpaternalism, violence and burn-out--which activity in the region throws into especially sharp relief, and whose discussion contributes to broader anarchist debates.


With the conflict in Palestine/Israel so high on the public agenda, and with significant domestic and international anarchist involvement in Palestine solidarity campaigns, it is surprising that the scant polemical anarchist contributions on the topic remain, at their best, irrelevant to the concrete experiences and dilemmas of movements in the region, and, at their worst, depart from anarchism all together. Thus the American Platformist Wayne Price (2002) descends into very crude terms when proclaiming:

In the smoke and blood of Israel/Palestine these days, one point should be clear, that Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinian Arabs are the oppressed. Therefore anarchists, and all decent people, should be on the side of the Palestinians. Criticisms of their leaderships or their methods of fighting are all secondary; so is recognition that the Israeli Jews are also people and also have certain collective rights. The first step, always, is to stand with the oppressed as they fight for their freedom. Asking all decent people to see someone else's humanity and collective rights as secondary to anything--whatever this is, this is not anarchism. Where does Price's side-taking leave the distinction between the Israeli government and Israeli citizens, or the expectation of solidarity with Israelis who struggle against the occupation and social injustice? These Israelis are certainly not taking action because they are 'siding with the Palestinians', but more likely out of a sense of injustice, responsibility and solidarity. For the anarchists among them, it is also clearly a struggle taken from the perspective of self-liberation from a militaristic, racist, sexist and otherwise unequal society. Price's complete indifference to those who consciously intervene against the occupation and in multiple social conflicts within Israeli society rests on vast generalisations about how 'blind nationalism leads each nation see itself and the other as a bloc'. However, people who live inside a conflict can hardly be expected to display such naive attitudes--the author is only projecting his own, outsider's, black-and-white vision onto the alleged mindsets of the subjects, and the side tagged as black is subject to crass and dehumanising language (see also Hobson, Price & Quest 2001). This has become a widespread phenomenon in the discourse of the European and American Palestine-solidarity movement and the broader Left, representing what anarchist critics have recently pointed to as a typically Leftist form of Judeophobia or anti-Semitism (Austrian and Goldman 2003, Michaels 2004, Shot by both sides 2005).

Meanwhile, Price is so confident about having insight into the just and appropriate resolution that he permits himself to issue elaborate programs and demands, down to the finer details: unilateral Israeli withdrawal to 1967 lines, a Palestinian state and the right of return, ending up in 'some sort of 'secular-democratic' or '"binational" communal federation' with 'some sort of self-managed non-capitalist economy'. Meanwhile 'we must support the resistance of the Palestinian people. They have the right to self-determination, that is, to choose their leaders, their programs, and their methods of struggle, whatever we think'.

A blank cheque, then, to suicide bombings and any present or future Palestinian elite. The statement's imperative tone also begs the question. To whom, precisely, are Price's 'we' supposed to be issuing such elaborate demands? To the Israeli state, backed perhaps by the potent threat of embassy occupations and boycotts on academics, oranges and software? Or maybe to the international community, or to the American state for that matter? In all cases this would be a 'politics of demand' which extends undue recognition and legitimation to state power through the act of demand itself--an approach far removed from central anarchist strategies.

Myopia towards what is happening on the ground is also a problem for Ryan Chiang McCarthy (2002). Though taking issue with Price's failure to distinguish between peoples and their rulers, McCarthy's call for solidarity with libertarian forces on the ground is unfortunately extended only to struggles which fall within his prejudiced gaze: 'autonomous labour movements of Palestinian and Israeli workers ... A workers' movement that bypasses the narrow lines of struggle ... and fights for the unmediated demands of workers'. Besides being entirely detached from reality--the prospects for autonomous labour movements are as bleak in Israel/Palestine as they are in the rest of the developed world--such a workerist fetish is also directly harmful. It reproduces the invisibility of the many important struggles in Palestine/Israel that do not revolve around work, and in which most anarchists happen to be participating (see below). Meanwhile, stubborn class reductionism demarcates no less narrow lines of struggle than the ones which it criticises, and does the protagonists violence by forcing their actions into...

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