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Class, Nation, and Political Organization: The Anti-Zionist Left in Israel/Palestine

  • Ran Greenstein (a1)

The paper discusses historical lessons offered by the experience of two leftwing movements, the pre-1948 Palestinian Communist Party, and the post-1948 Israeli Socialist Organization (Matzpen). The focus of discussion is the relationship between class and nation as principles of organization.

The Palestinian Communist Party was shaped by forces that shaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: British rule, Zionist ideology and settlement practices, and Arab nationalism. At intensified conflict periods it was torn apart by the pressures of competing nationalisms. By the end of the period, its factions agreed on one principle: the need to treat members of both national groups equally, whether as individuals or as groups entitled to self-determination. This position was rejected by both national movements as incompatible with their quest for control.

In the post-1948 period, Matzpen epitomized the radical critique of Zionism. It was the clearest voice speaking against the 1967 occupation and for restoration of Palestinian rights. However, it never moved beyond the political margins, and its organization failed to provide members with a sustainable mode of activism. It was replaced by a new mode, mobilizing people around specific issues instead of presenting an overall program.

The paper concludes with suggestions on how the Left may use these lessons to develop a strategy to focus on the quest for social justice and human rights.

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1. For the notion of a mute process of peasant resistance, see Khalidi, Rashid, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997), 89117.

2. Quotes taken from Ha'am, Ahad, Standing at a Juncture (Jüdischer Verlag, 1930), 40, 28 (in Hebrew).

3. See discussion of and translation of these seminal articles in Dowty, Alan, “Much Ado about Little: Ahad Ha'am's ‘Truth from Eretz Yisrael,’ Zionism, and the Arabs,” Israel Studies (Fall 2000), 154181; Dowty, Alan, “‘A Question That Outweighs All Others’: Yitzhak Epstein and Zionist Recognition of the Arab Issue,” Israel Studies (Spring 2001), 3454. On Brit Shalom and Ihud, see Hattis, Susan Lee, The Bi-National Idea in Palestine during Mandatory Times (Shikmona, 1970); Heller, Joseph, From Brit Shalom to Ihud: Judah Leib Magnes and the Struggle for a Binational State in Palestine (Magnes Press, 2003) (in Hebrew).

4. Quoted in Frankel, Jonathan, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism & the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 129.

5. It is crucial to understand that the term “Palestinian” here refers to the pre-1948 territory of Palestine and its population, not to a specific ethnic group within it, as it does today. The term “Israeli” is likewise territorial in nature.

6. The Zionist socialist movement Poalei Zion was formed early in the 20th century. In 1920 it split over the issue of affiliation to the Comintern. Its right wing remained focused on settlement in Palestine, while the left wing was divided over how to balance the competing imperatives of Zionism and communism. See List, Nahman, “Tzadak Hakomintern…”, Part 3, Keshet, 22 (1964), 154165 (in Hebrew); Dotan, Shmuel, Reds: The Communist Party in Palestine (Shabna Hasofer, 1991), 3763 (in Hebrew). On attempts to reconcile Zionism and Marxism, see Kollat, Israel, “Zionist Marxism,” 227–270 in Varieties of Marxism, edited by Avineri, Shlomo (Martinus Nijhoff, 1977).

7. Communist International, Theses on the National and Colonial Question, July 28, 1920, Point 11(f), in Accessed January 14, 2009.

8. “Protocol of the Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI),” September 21, 1920, in Zehavi, Leon, Apart or Together: Jews and Arabs in Palestine According to the Documents of the Comintern, 1919–1943 (Keter, 2005) (in Hebrew), 2532.

9. The main institution of labor Zionism, founded in 1920, which combined trade union, cooperative, and land settlement functions.

10. Nahman List, “Tzadak Hakomintern…” Part 4, Keshet, 24 (1964), 111116 (in Hebrew). List was a senior member whose critical but sympathetic series of articles published in the 1960s—long after he had left the Party—is the best source on the early history of Communism in Palestine. Its ironic title is “The Comintern was Right…”

11. Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Theses on the Eastern Question, December 5, 1922, in Accessed 14 January 2009.

12. On Palestinian-Arab identity and ideology, see Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity, 145–175; Porath, Yehoshua, The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918–29 (Frank Cass, 1974), 3169.

13. ECCI, “Resolution on Work in Palestine,” May 10, 1923, in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 40–41.

14. ECCI, “Resolution Regarding the Report on the PKP,” June 26, 1926, in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 83–84.

15. Letter from ECCI to Central Committee of PKP, June 16, 1928, in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 144.

16. Ibid., 146.

17. The call for “indigenizing” communist parties based among settler or immigrant populations was not restricted to Palestine, of course. Two cases are discussed in Drew, Allison, “Bolshevizing Communist Parties: The Algerian and South African Experiences,” International Review of Social History, 48 (2003), 167202.

18. Central Committee of PKP, “The Bloody War in Palestine and the Working Class,” September 1929, in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 175189.

19. ECCI Political Secretariat, “Resolution on the Insurrection Movement in Arabistan,” November 26, 1929, in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 203. Other sources give the date of the resolution as October 16, 1929; partial English translation can be found in Degras, Jane, The Communist International 1919–1943, Documents: Vol. III, 1929–1943 (London, 1960), 7684.

20. Zehavi, Apart or Together, 241.

21. Ibid., 243.

22. “Resolutions of the 7th Congress of the Palestinian Communist Party,” in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 259. Most of the resolutions of what became known as the Arabization Congress can be found in Zehavi's book, 251–276; some of them were included in a 1934 Soviet publication, “Documents of the Programs of the Communist Parties of the East,” reproduced in Spector, Ivar, The Soviet Union and the Muslim World, 1917–1958 (University of Washington Press, 1959), 111180.

23. Radwan al-Hilu (better known as Musa), the General Secretary, was Arab, and he was supported by Simha Tzabari and Meir Slonim, both indigenous Jews, fluent in Arabic.

24. On the Popular Front policy, see the 1935 speech by Georgi Dimitrov, general secretary of the Comintern, in Accessed January 14, 2009.

25. See various Party statements and leaflets from the early stages of the Revolt (during the general strike of April to October 1936), in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 367–383; also Budeiri, Musa, The Palestine Communist Party: Arab and Jew in the Struggle for Internationalism (Ithaca Press, 1979), 8899; Porath, Yehoshua, “Revolution and Terrorism in the Policy of the Palestinian Communist Party (PKP), 1929–1939,” Hamizrah Hahadash, 18 (1968), 255267 (in Hebrew).

26. “Report of the Soviet Delegation to Palestine”, October 15, 1942, in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 403–408. This self-criticism was not made public at the time.

27. “Letter to Comrade Dimitrov,” December 21, 1942, in Zehavi, Apart or Together, 408–411.

28. Budeiri, The Palestine Communist Party, 159.

29. On the background to the split, see Ibid., 153–164; Ben-Zaken, Avner, Communism as Cultural Imperialism: The Affinities between Eretz-Israeli and Arab Communism, 1919–1948 (Resling, 2006), 127135 (in Hebrew).

30. Budeiri, The Palestine Communist Party, 153.

31. On the NLL's program, see Budeiri, The Palestine Communist Party, 212–217; Porath, Yehoshua, “The National Liberation League (usbat at-taharrur al-watani): Its Rise, Nature and Dissolution (1943–1948),” Hamizrah Hahadash, 14(1964), 354366; Abigail Jacobson, “The National Liberation League, 1943–1948: An Alternative Palestinian Political Discourse,” unpublished MA thesis, Tel Aviv University, 2000, 19–21, 34–38, 40–44, 54–57.

32. From PKP 9th Congress, September 1945, in Ben-Zaken, Communism as Cultural Imperialism, 138.

33. For Vilner's position, see Beinin, Joel, Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948–1965 (University of California Press, 1990), 4041.

34. See Soviet position in Andrei Gromyko's 1947 UN speech Accessed January 14, 2009.

35. On the debates, shifting alliances, and eventual reunification between the PKP and NLL, see Budieri, The Palestine Communist Party, 231–242; Ben-Zaken, Communism as Cultural Imperialism, 173–184. Budeiri concludes that “The appeal the two hostile communities made on their respective members proved stronger than the promise of an eventual realisation of a community of interests between Arabs and Jews,” 266.

36. On Maki during the period 1948–1965, see Beinin, Was the Red Flag Flying There?

37. Jiryis, Sabri, The Arabs in Israel (Monthly Review, 1976); Bäuml, Yair, A Blue and White Shadow (Pardes, 2007), 272309 (in Hebrew).

38. Its marginal position earned it few comprehensive studies. The only substantial one is by Davis, Nira Yuval, Matzpen: The Israeli Socialist Organization (Hebrew University, 1977), based on MA fieldwork conducted in 1969–1970 and covering that period with a focus on issues of organization, structure, and membership. In 2003 a documentary film on the organization, Matzpen: Anti-Zionist Israelis was made and subsequently screened on Israeli TV: Accessed January 14, 2009. A useful analysis is found in Grabski, August, “Matzpen and the State of Israel (1962–1973),” Jewish History Quarterly, 3(2006): 354365.

39. Israeli, A. (Akiva Orr and Moshe Machover), Peace, Peace, When There is No Peace (Bohan Press, 1961) (in Hebrew). A new edition was published in 1999, with additional appendices. Online version available at Accessed January 14, 2009.

40. “There is an Address,” Matzpen, November 1, 1962.

41. A. Israeli, “Palestine,” Matzpen, 4, February–March 1963.

42. For example, in “Zionism or Peace,” Matzpen, 26, October–November 1965, A. Israeli called for a united front, together with Maki, the Semitic Action, and the Arab movement al-Ard (The land) as an alternative to all Zionist parties on the basis of rejecting Zionism and recognizing the national rights of both peoples of the country.

43. ISO central committee, “Statement on the Israeli-Arab Conflict, May 1967,” in Matzpen, 36, June–July 1967. At the time, Communist parties ignored the Palestinian issue. See “Statement on the Situation in the Arab countries by the Arab communist Parties, May 1967,” 221–228 in Laqueur, Walter, The Struggle for the Middle East: The Soviet Union and the Middle East, 1958–68 (RKP, 1969).

44. “The Third Round,” July 5, 1967, Statement by the Israeli Socialist Organization, Matzpen, 36, June–July 1967.

45. “General Declaration by the ISO,” March 22, 1968.

46. Maki split in 1965 into a small Jewish faction that retained the original name, and a bigger faction representing the majority, mostly Arab, membership (led largely by former NLL leaders still active in the Party). The latter adopted the name New Communist List (Rakah). Between 1965 and 1967 the Soviet Union maintained relations with both, but after 1967 regarded Rakah as the only official party.

47. “Down with the Occupation,” A statement by the ISO, January 1, 1969.

48. Hangebi, Haim, Machover, Moshe, and Orr, Akiva, “The Class Nature of Israeli Society,” New Left Review, 64, January–February 1971, 4.

49. Ibid., 25.

50. The analysis of Zionism as a form of exclusionary colonialism was influenced by two other works, which originally appeared in French in the late 1960s. Rodinson, Maxime, Israel: A colonial-settler state? (Monad Press, 1973); Weinstock, Nathan, Zionism: False Messiah (Inklinks, 1979).

51. “Towards a New Perspective,” Ma'avak, 1, October 1970.

52. “Political Program of the Revolutionary Communist Alliance”, point 12, in Ma'avak, 1, October 1970.

53. Ibid., point 19.

54. Pilavski, Oded, “Leftist Phrases and Rightist Meanings,” Matzpen, 56, November 1970.

55. Matzpen regarded its “centrism” as an asset: the ability to tackle complex social and historical realities while avoiding a simplistic one-track mode of analysis. See various responses to criticisms by Ma'avak and Avangard in Matzpen, 56, November 1970 and Matzpen, 57, January 1971.

56. Bober, Arie, ed., The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism (Doubleday, 1972). The book can be found online at Accessed January 14, 2009.

57. “Basic Principles,” Accessed January 14, 2009.

58. Accessed January 14, 2009. The conclusion was written by the three then-leaders of Matzpen Marxist, Arie Bober, Eli Aminov and Michel Warschawski.

59. “Statement by the Israeli Socialist Organization (Marxist),” October 7, 1973, in Matzpen Marxist, 71, December 1973.

60. Nir, Tamara, “15 Years to Matzpen: Reflections on a Birthday,” Matzpen Marxist, 100, January 1978.

61. “The Olga Document,”, June 2004. Accessed January 14, 2009.

62. But in contrast to the anti-Zionist Left, which always attempted to speak for and to Jews and Arabs alike, the Olga Document is written by Jews addressing other Jews (despite the fact that many of its signatories had been active with Palestinians in other forums and organizations).

63. Accessed January 14, 2009.

64. Warschawski, Michael, “The Discreet Charm of Matzpen,” Mitsad Sheni, 14–15, 2006.

65. Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd edition (Verso, 2001).

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