Saturday, September 10, 2005

Following in Stalin's footsteps

In the 1970s both the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks compared their plight to that of the exiled Palestinians. The similar history of these three groups made this comparison difficult for the Soviet government to refute. All three nationalities had been forcibly expelled from their homelands by racist regimes pretending to support national equality under the guise of socialist rhetoric. None of the exiled peoples had been allowed to return to their homelands and their historical presence on the land had been systematically erased. Both the Soviet and Israeli governments had used a great deal of violence to permanently clear these peoples from their native lands. They also had large numbers of supporters in the US and other western countries that defended these acts of ethnic cleansing.

It is not surprising that the Zionist policies towards the Palestinian Arabs had a great many similarities with Stalin's earlier ethnic cleansings. Probably unknown to the Crimean Tatar and Meskhetian Turk activists using the analogy, the Soviet national deportations had actually served as an explicit model for the expulsion of the Palestinians. To be sure it was not the only model. The expulsion of the Greeks from Anatolia and Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia had also been studied by the Zionists as models to emulate regarding the Palestinians. But, the Stalinist deportations, particularly of the Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars were the favored model of the Labour Zionists due to their socialist providence. In particular the deportation of the Volga Germans came up frequently in public Zionist discourse during the 1940s as showing the proper manner in which to deal with the Palestinians. Berl Katznelson openly advocated copying the Soviet deportation of the Volga Germans as a means of clearing Palestine of its native population in an editorial published in Davar as early as 1943. Despite its Labour origins the idea of the Volga German deportations as a model also spread to other political parties. On 8 January 1949, Ya'acov Meridor of the Herut Party stood up in the Knesset and argued that Stalin had dealt with the Volga Germans in a proper manner and that Israel should expel its remaining Palestinian population in a similar fashion. The deliberate emulation of the Stalinist deportations as a model accounts in large part for the similarities between ethnic cleansing in the USSR and Palestine.

The Israelis like the Soviets used organized military units to round up the Palestinians from their ancestral villages and convey them to alien lands totally unprepared for their arrival. Organized Soviet style removals accounted for about 250,000 of the 750,000 Palestinians that left their homes from 1947 to 1949. The forced expulsion of nearly 60,000 Palestinians from Lydda and Ramale in particular resembled the earlier Soviet deportations. In both the Soviet and Israeli cases the expelees had little time to gather up any belongings; they permanently lost their farms, vineyards and orchards. Both expelling powers also desecrated the abandoned churches, mosques and cemetaries that had formed an integral part of the culture of the now banished natives. Finally, in both cases the victimized nationalities found themselves forced to live in conditions of extreme poverty in makeshift housing.

Both the Stalin regime and the Zionists intended their expulsions to be permanent. The permanent exile of special settlers in the USSR received codification from the Supreme Soviet on 26 November 1948. Israel passed the Absentee Property Law in 1950 which banned any Palestinians absent from their homes during 1947 and 1948 from ever returning to their former place of residence. This law also prohibited Palestinians expelled beyond the borders of what became Israel in 1949 and their descendents from ever acquiring Israeli citizenship or compensation for lost property. Expelled Palestinians attempting to cross the border to return home were frequently shot by the Israelis. From 1948 to 1956, Israeli border guards killed over 2,700 Palestinians attempting to cross their borders. Many of these fatalities were unarmed. Finally, the Absentee Property Law passed these legal disabilities down from generation to generation on the basis of biological, i.e. racial descent. It did not impose similar restrictions on people catagorized as Jews rather than Arabs by the Israeli government. Even Arabs who managed to later acquire Israeli citizenship could not return to their former villages and remained "Present Absentees." It is the formation of Israel on the basis of such laws that led to the charge that Zionism is a form of racism.

The catagory of Jew in Israel was conceptualized as racial not religious. The Israelis copied the Soviet style form of national classifications and ID cards had entries for citizenship, nationality and religion. An Arab ID card might read Israeli, Arab and Muslim, Sunni. While a Jewish ID card would read Israeli, Jewish and Jewish. It is the immutable nationality not the religion that defined Jews for purposes of rights under the Absentee Property Law and other legislation. An Arab converting to Judaism would still have an ID card reading Israeli, Arab, Jew and be considered an Arab in terms of having limited citizenship rights. But, the confusion of the term Jew as both a religious and a racialized nationality signifier has allowed many Americans and others to falsely claim that Israel is not a racist state.

The Zionists failed to completely expel all the Palestinians from the territory of the new Israeli state. About 150,000 remained under Israeli rule. The Israeli regime placed these people under a seperate legal and administrative system from the Jewish population. This system seems to have been copied from the Stalinist special settlement system. Palestinians could only live in certain designated areas and they had to obtain special permission to travel beyond these areas. The Israelis punished unauthorized travel with administrative fines and incarceration. Finally, like the special settlers in the USSR the Palestinians had to report to special police representatives on a regular basis. This discriminatory system existed in full force against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship until 1966.

The emulation of the Soviet model of ethnic cleansing and racial exclusion by Israel prehaps explains in part why so many Israeli partisans in the US and elsewhere have historically been unwilling to criticize the USSR's racist policies. If the USSR was guilty of ethnic cleansing and racism then a state that deliberately copied its policies of deportation and seperate treatment under the law for people of different nationalities would share this guilt. It would also partially explain why the cause of Palestine in the US has never gotten much support from the left which unlike the left in Europe has remained historically wedded to the Soviet legacy.

1 comment:

John Pohl said...

Otto,

You have proved me wrong once again. I expected you to get a lot of unfriendly comments on this post, even though you left out the most telling evidence, the relationship between the leaders of the uSR and Isreal and the letters confirming this. Finkelstein's basement still has vacancies.