The slogan embraced by virtually all labor organizations of merit for hundreds of years—that “An injury to one is an injury to all”—is unfortunately, indeed tragically, thought to be false by many otherwise good people who do not have a personal connection to the old labor movement and the wisdom it gained, often through bitter experience. This unfortunate state of affairs came to my attention most recently when I attended an academic conference at Boston University, called the Right of Return Conference, organized by people who support the right of return of Palestinian refugees and who oppose the Israeli government’s violent suppression of this right.
For the purpose of this article, it is important to understand that the people who organized and attended this conference were motivated by the entirely worthy desire to oppose a particularly terrible example of racism, called Zionism, which is the name of the ideology on the basis of which the Israeli government acts. Zionism says, on the one hand, that because many Jews lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, anybody who claims to be Jewish today must be presumed (even if there is no evidence for the presumption and much evidence against it) to be descended from those Palestinian Jews of the ancient past and therefore to have a right to “return” to Palestine; but, on the other hand, Palestinians who actually lived in Palestine for many generations before and up to 1947-8 when they left (typically at gun point or in fear of being massacred by Zionists, as many Palestinians had been at this time) and their children and grandchildren who were subsequently born (often in refugee camps), do not have a right to return to their homes and villages (that are inside the 78% of Palestine now called Israel.)
This Right of Return Conference was devoted almost exclusively to the admirable theme that the Palestinian refugees really do have a right of return, that there is no unsurmountable practical obstacle to their actually returning and therefore there is no legitimate excuse for the Israeli government to deny the refugees their right of return. What the conference did not pay significant attention to was the question, “What will it take to actually win the right of return?”
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When one switches from affirming the moral rightness of an anti-racist goal like Right of Return (a crucial first step indeed!) to the question of how to actually win it, one cannot make progress without an understanding of the basic fact that, among working class people of all races and religions and nationalities, an injury to one is an injury to all, specifically that an injury to one racial or ethnic group is an injury to workers of all the other racial or ethnic groups as well. Why is this so?
The reason is that racist discrimination and oppression of certain working class people is used by wealthy and privileged ruling elites to control all working people, to make them controllable by divide-and-rule, to pitt one group of working class people against another, to attack one group in the name of another group and thereby persuade the groups that they are each other’s enemy, to tell the group that is not singled out for the racist attack that it needs to rely on the ruling elite to protect it from the group that is singled out by the racist attack. For ruling elites, using this divide-and-rule strategy is a time-honored tradition; they understand how to do it in their sleep; the children of the elite learn this strategy at the dinner table. The elite understand perfectly well that it is necessary to injure some working class people particularly brutally in order to dominate and exploit all working class people.
Unfortunately, the people at the Right of Return Conference just didn’t get it. I found the main organizer of the conference (a young man whose name I will not use here but whom I knew a little bit because he was a high school classmate of one of my sons) in the lobby of the auditorium where the conference was taking place, and I asked him if I could ask him a question. He said fine. I began by saying that in the United States, in the deep south of Mississippi and Arkansas and the cotton belt states, in the 1930s, poor black and white tenant farmers organized the integrated Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and waged a successful strike against the big landowners for higher pay. I explained that they were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, that their integrated meetings were declared illegal (the racist Jim Crow laws prohibited them) and that the workers’ very ability to form the union at all required them to reject the racist ideas that the KKK and the Jim Crow laws were intended to promote and enforce. I then asked this young man—the main organizer of the conference—”Do you think the racist Jim Crow laws benefitted or harmed the poor whites?” He replied, “benefitted.” I needed to make sure I had heard him correctly, so I repeated the question carefully again, and he repeated that the poor whites benefitted from the racist Jim Crow laws. He insisted that the story I had told was not very relevant to the question. Not surprisingly, he also asserted that ordinary Jews living in Israel benefitted from Zionism.
In the speeches given by the invited panelists and keynote speakers of the conference, there was only one single allusion to the idea that working class Israeli Jews (the speaker didn’t use this terminology, but rather referred to the dark-skinned Jews from northern Africa who are discriminated against in Israel) are harmed by Zionism. I decided to ask the young man and woman, who happened to be sitting behind me in the auditorium where the conference was taking place, the exact same question (about poor whites and the racist Jim Crow laws), and they gave exactly the same reply that the main organizer of the conference had given.
This is tragic! People at this conference want to end a racist practice. It can only be ended by building a mass movement against that racist practice. This can only succeed by enlisting the support of all the people who are harmed by that racist practice. And yet, tragically, these people don’t understand that an injury to one is an injury to all; they don’t understand that ordinary working class Jews in Israel (whether dark or light skinned) are harmed by Zionism. They don’t understand that the huge Occupy-style mass demonstrations that broke out in Israel in the summer of 2011, against the extreme economic inequality in Israel that is making it impossible for many Israelis to be able even to afford to rent an apartment, constituted a revolt by working class Israelis (mainly Jewish, many light-skinned) against the Zionist leaders. The people at the conference don’t understand that the failure of this revolt to win substantial gains against the Zionist ruling elite was due to the success of the Zionist rulers in using racism (ethnic cleansing) against Palestinians in the name of Jews to make Jewish Israelis fear Palestinians (because they fight back) and view the Zionist rulers as their protectors against the Palestinians. Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu understood this very well. He instigated a convenient “crisis” in Gaza and used it to force the Israeli demonstrators to choose between supporting their Zionist leaders against the “real enemy” (i.e. Palestinians) or continuing their struggle against their Zionist leaders. This killed the revolt. People at the Right of Return Conference only see that the demonstrators failed to reject Zionism; they don’t see that this harmed—not benefitted!—the demonstrators.
Hence the people at the conference do not understand the potential for winning working class Jewish Israelis to the fight against Zionism. And because they do not understand this potential, they tend to avoid the question of how to defeat Zionism or else they engage in a kind of wishful thinking that takes the form of relying on the fact that international law says Palestinians have a right of return, as if the actual rulers of the world ever let international law get in their way when it comes to using their divide-and-rule strategy for staying in power.
When I tried to make the above points in a conversation I had with one of the conference panelists—a young Palestinian woman academic (almost all of the panelists, and all of the keynote speakers, were academics)—I began by referring to the big demonstrations in Israel in the summer of 2011. She cut me off to say, “Yeah, and they didn’t support Palestinians.” Her way of thinking about these things was apparently to classify people according to who, today, supported Palestinians and who did not; she seemed uninterested in classifying people according to who was injured by Zionism and could, therefore, potentially be won to opposing it, and who was not. This is tragic. It is tragic because her way of thinking precludes building the only kind of movement that can actually win what she wants to win.
If I were able to continue my conversation with people at this conference, I would call their attention to an incident that, while not being obviously connected to the topic of the conference, is in fact profoundly connected to it. The incident is reported by Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon in their book, The Death of An American Jewish Community, about Boston in the 1960s.
“One high school student who worked the swing shift in a South Boston [an all white neighborhood at the time] sportswear factory in 1967 recalled…: After a black worker’s paycheck failed to arrive on payday due to an administrative snafu, the same white workers who had resisted an integrated work force called an immediate work stoppage. A burly cloth cutter known for his open contempt for blacks laid down the law to management in blunt language: “Nobody returns to the shop floor until the nigger gets his fuckin’ paycheck.” [pg. 111]
How does this relate to Palestine? Firstly, the contemp for blacks by the white “burly cloth cutter” is not unlike the contempt for and fear of Palestinians by Jewish Israelis. The contempt (and fear) stem in both cases from lies told and manipulations of life orchestrated by a wealthy and privileged and powerful ruling elite. The fact that the high school student thought that the worker’s paycheck failed to arrive due to a (presumably innocent) administrative snafu but that the factory workers apparently viewed it quite differently—as an attack on the black worker that required strong action on their part—illustrates how experienced working people (whether they live in Boston or Israel) understand the reality of class conflict better than inexperienced and naive students (and academics). The fact that the “burly cloth cutter” understood and militantly acted upon the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all (“Nobody returns to the shop floor until” the black worker gets his paycheck) even though he was blinded by racist lies (“the nigger gets his fuckin’ paycheck”) illustrates how it is quite possible for the principle of “an injury to one is an injury to all” to trump the most extreme beliefs in racist lies about the “one” who is injured, even if the “one” who is injured is Palestinians and the racist lie is Zionism.
Of course it is better if people who believe racist lies come to understand that they are in fact lies. One of the things that helps people come to this understanding is knowing why certain people spread those lies, that its purpose is to cause an “injury to all.” Activists who themselves don’t know (and actually vehemently deny) this fundamental fact, however, are hardly going to be able to explain it to anybody else.
Building a movement of working people that unites all racial groups against an attack on any racial group requires understanding and acting upon what is potentially possible, and not dismissing the possibility merely because it hasn’t happened yet. If one dismisses the possibility of building a large working class movement against Zionism, then the only alternative is to rely on the ruling class, i.e. on “international law” and the United Nations and the “shuttle diplomacy of John Kerry” and other such things, which is clearly a losing strategy. As Dr. Phil would say, “How has that strategy been working out for you?” It’s been used for more than 60 years and it has accomplished absolutely nothing towards winning the right of return for Palestinians. The potential exists for mass demonstrations in Israel, such as those in the summer of 2011, challenging the power of the Zionist ruling class and rejecting its racist ethnic cleansing as a divide-and-rule “injury to all.” This, indeed, is what the Zionist ruling class fears most of all.
Clearly, the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all” is as relevant for all struggles against injustice as it is for the struggle against Zionism. This is why the ruling class uses its control of left and liberal media to try to persuade people (like the organizer of the Right of Return Conference) that the principle is false. There is a whole liberal/left vocabulary that has been injected into public discourse, designed to refute the “injury to one” principle. Liberals and leftists are encouraged to refer to the working class people who are not the “one” who is injured directly by a racist policy as “complicit” in the racist policy, and to assert that they are “privileged” (which means that they benefit from the injustice.) Thus “whites are complicit in racism” and enjoy “white skin privilege” and “Israeli Jews are complicit in and privileged by Zionism.”
The Zionist claim that Israel is a “Jewish state” is actually a big lie designed to make Jews believe that they benefit from the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. The truth is that ethnic cleansing of Palestinians makes ordinary Jews easier for the Zionist billionaires and generals and politicians to dominate, control and exploit. Israel is no more a “state of the Jews” than the United States is a “state of ‘we the people'”; it is a state of the ruling Jewish elite. Ordinary Jews in Israel may not suffer the same magnitute of oppression as Palestinians, but they do not benefit from Zionism; Zionism is no “privilege” enjoyed by ordinary Israeli Jews; it is an injury to them as part of the “all” in “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Class economic inequality in Israel (and the U.S.) is greater than in the other “Western democracies” for the same reason that wages for all workers are lowerin the American South than in the American North: where the racist attack is sharpest against the “one” the injury is greater to the “all.”
Sure, if one is determined to deny that an injury to one is an injury to all, then one can say that anybody who pays taxes to an unjust government is “complicit” in the injustice, or one can point to how Israeli Jews say racist things about Palestinians and how they live in homes stolen from Palestinians, just as one could have found ways that poor whites enjoyed some things in the American South in the 1930s that were denied to blacks (that was what Jim Crow laws were all about, after all) and therefore that the poor whites were complicit in racism and enjoyed “white skin privilege.” One can always find some excuse to assert that an injury to one is a BENEFIT to the others. The ruling class absolutely delights in seeing activists to do just that. Activists who do this may not realize it, but by doing so they are essentially declaring that they don’t really have any intention to win; they just want to tell the world (and reassure themselves) that they are against injustice. But the point is to abolish injustice, not just to declare it unjust.