Walking on two legs: Israel, Palestine and the Middle East from a Matzpen perspective. An interview with Moshé Machover
Platypus Review #80 | October 2015
Moshé Machover was a founder of the Israeli Socialist Organisation in 1962, better known by the title of its journal, Matzpen (meaning “Compass” in Hebrew). The journal became known for its anti-Zionism and anti-nationalism from a Marxist perspective. Machover was interviewed on 17 September 2015 by Platypus members Thomas Willis and Richard Rubin. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion, focussing on its potential lessons learned for the present.
Thomas Willis: What early political experiences brought you to leftism? What led you to join the Communist Party?
Moshé Machover: My trajectory was similar to many who got to the Communist Party or the Marxist revolutionary left, which was through left-wing Zionism. I was a member of Hashomer Hatza‘ir (“The Youth Guard”, a socialist Zionist youth organisation). Abram Leon and Ernest Mandel went through a similar route. I was born in Palestine, in Tel Aviv in 1936. Both my parents came from a bourgeois background in Russia. However, my father had fought in the Red Army in the Civil War. For a young Jewish person in Russia, it was a no-brainer what side you were on. I know he held a lifelong admiration for his commander-in-chief, Leon Trotsky. He left Russia in the early 1920s and died when I was eight years old. When I was born my family was not particularly left-wing, rather bourgeois, fairly right-wing. At the age of twelve, when I joined Hashomer Hatza‘ir for a few years, I was exposed to Marxism. This organization was a very strange combination of incompatible elements: Zionism and Marxism. You got indoctrinated in both but there was no integration between these two.
Richard Rubin: What about the Marxist Zionist, Ber Borochov (1881-1917)?
MM: Ah! Ber Borochov was not a part of the Hashomer Hatza‘ir ideology. It is a good question, because reading Borochov was a transitional phase in my political development. Hashomer Hatza‘ir (HH) advocated “constructivism,” encouraging their supporters to found kibbutzim (in other words, to participate in colonizing Palestine, and later on Israel, through agricultural settlements, constructing a Zionist economy). In contrast, Borochov attempted to deduce Zionism from Marxist principles. He thought that the Jewish working class would gravitate by objective causes to Palestine (he had a complicated way of trying to prove this). He said the Jewish bourgeoisie would also gravitate to Palestine, construct an economy, and that the workers whom he tried to influence would engage in class struggle. In one respect his ideology was superior: He tried to make an organic connection between Zionism and Marxism, what in HH were two incompatible parts.
RR: So you were still in HH during the 1948 War of Independence, the Nakba?
MM: I joined during it, in 1948, when I was twelve. I and two comrades were expelled for trying to advocate Borochovist ideas. We joined the Communist Youth in late 1952, or early 1953, before Stalin’s death.
RR: At that time the Israeli Communist Party (known as Maki) was very Stalinist. There would have been support for Stalinism even in HH.
MM: That is correct. The Marxist component of HH was very Stalinized at the time. It was a combination of Stalinized Marxism and Zionism. When we joined the Communist Youth, we shed our Zionism, to some extent. In 1952, the Communist Party’s opposition to Zionism was not really thoroughgoing. It was a patriotic party. Stalin supported Israel during 1948. Maki’s representative signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence—a Zionist document. By 1950, Stalin changed his position. He realized he had blundered, even from his own position, never mind from any position you or I could support. At the time he thought it clever to support the Israeli side in order to rid the Middle East of British imperialism—that this would facilitate some kind of greater influence for the USSR in the region. He realized soon after that he was greatly mistaken.
RR: What effect did world events like the Slánský trial in 1953 (where members of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia were accused by the party of spreading “Trotskyite-Zionist” propaganda for the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito) and then the events of 1956 have on you and your milieu?
MM: These are different things. We were in denial of the Slánský trial, and other similar trials and tried to accept them for the time being. 1956 was a contradictory year with two almost simultaneous events. The Hungarian uprising was in part an uprising of the Hungarian workers, which was brutally repressed by the USSR. Simultaneously, there was the Suez war against Egypt. In both Maki followed the USSR, as Communist parties everywhere slavishly did at the time. We were disturbed by the Hungarian events. On the other hand we supported the party position on Suez. By 1956, I was a student and had joined the Jerusalem branch of the Communist Party, not just the youth section. I was closely associated with a friend and comrade, the late Akiva Orr. He was a seaman in the Israeli merchant navy who decided to study in the university. We were students together, members together in the Communist Party branch, and were thinking together.
TW: You wrote a book together in 1961.
MM: Yes, Peace, Peace, and there is no Peace. At the time we were in transition from the Communist Party, further to the left. Our politics developed as we worked on this book. We started from positions identical to the Communist Party on the 1956 Suez war, writing to defend the position of the Communist Party. However, we ended up in a more critical mode. It was a stage in our more thoroughgoing critique of Zionism.
RR: Did you encounter any Trotskyists? There was a small Trotskyist movement in the 1930s and 1940s. Were there any of them around?
MM: No, that was before our time; in the 1950s we did not encounter Trotskyists. We knew a couple of people who were reputed to be Trotskyists, but it didn’t register much. But, by the time our book came out, we had read Trotskyist literature. There are excellent translations into Hebrew of My Life, and of The History of the Russian Revolution.
TW: So by then you had read both of those?
MM: Yes, we had read both. I can’t tell you that we had read it before 1956, but certainly in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
TW: What were the arguments and differences that led to your expulsion from the Communist Party in 1962? What did it mean to say, as you and your comrades did in “The Class Nature of Israeli Society” that Maki had, “abandoned the theory and practice of revolution a long time ago”? In 1962 you also, with Akiva Orr, formed your organisation around Matzpen. How was this an attempt to do something different?
MM: The Hungarian uprising in 1956 sowed the seeds of a critical attitude. Also in 1956, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was seminal. Suddenly, Stalin, previously idolized as the “Sun of the Peoples” by the Communist movement worldwide, was being denounced. It was disturbing how quickly the Communist Party switched. The bureaucrats and opportunists in the party switched the most easily. Some comrades found it more difficult; they retained admiration of Stalin longer. For an honest person, it was more difficult to make a sudden switch.
Then came two crucial events in 1958: the revolution in Iraq and the Cuban revolution. We reflected on the attitude of the Communist movement, led by the USSR, in both. In the Iraq revolution, which overthrew the monarchy, the Communist Party emerged as the strongest, best-organized force. Iraq had one of the two massive Communist parties in the Third World, the other was in Indonesia. (These, aside from China, which, pre-1960 Sino-Soviet split, was within the Communist Bloc). In Iraq, we witnessed how the USSR tried to restrain the Iraqi Communist Party from challenging ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim’s regime, (following his coup d'etat on 14 July 1958). Instead they tried to force the Communist Party to support this regime, as it was considered neutral with respect to the USSR—in other words, “Don’t upset the applecart”.
In Cuba, we witnessed how the Communist Party was initially unsupportive of Castro’s rebels. They delayed in joining the bandwagon. Finally, Castro declared his revolution socialist, but the Communist Party of Cuba was initially quiescent.
RR: This was a time of huge transformation in Israeli society: massive Jewish immigration, the 1948 War of Independence, the creation of the state. Israel in the 1950s was a radically different place from Israel today. How did being in the Communist Party affect your perception of Israeli society?
MM: First of all there was the problem of the Palestinian Arab minority…
RR: Who were still under military rule.
MM: That’s right, until 1966. The Communist Party actually fought for their rights. Its position on that issue was decent, and it got support in this part of the population.
RR: Would you characterize this as nationalist, or civil libertarian?
MM: Not nationalist. Civil libertarian, but further to the left. They supported the rights of Palestinian Arab workers. They also gave material aid, and that was very important in terms of gaining support for the Communist Party in that section of the population. They arranged for young people to get scholarships in the Soviet bloc, which was replicated in other countries. For a young Palestinian Arab in Israel, there were few avenues to get a university education, but there were opportunities to study in East Germany or the USSR. As far as the Jewish working class was concerned, the Communist Party’s position was broadly social-democratic. However, I’m glad you ask, because they did not encourage any more militant activity among the population as a whole. In the summer of 1959 there was a largely forgotten episode of so-called “rioting” by Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, so-called Mizrahim, in Haifa, which was an upsurge of working-class discontents, of poor, hyper-exploited, urban immigrants. We were disturbed because instead of coming to support and try to guide them, the Communist Party joined the other Zionist parties in calling for quiet. Again, that led us to see that the Communist Party was not a revolutionary party, but an agency for the USSR. As yet, we still thought of the USSR as some kind of socialist state. But we believed the role of the Communist Party was primarily to work for socialism where you are, not to defend the big-power interests of the USSR. The conflict between these two priorities seemed to us completely wrong. We later developed a more thoroughgoing critique of the USSR.
TW: What actually led to your expulsion? Why were you formally expelled?
MM: The formal reason for expelling us was that we broke party rules by getting together with people across branches. It was forbidden to associate without explicit permission with members of other branches. Akiva and I were in Jerusalem, we had co-thinkers in Tel Aviv. We started a discussion group, with some party members and some in the periphery to discuss the party critically. We also demanded the party open up its archives, because we realized the history of the party and its various gyrations was something to study and to draw lessons from. This was refused. We also challenged the lack of democracy in the party. Although we tried to keep our discussion group quiet, some idiot journalist discovered us and wrote an article in Haaretz.
TW: So what went into the decision to go from a discussion group to forming an independent organization?
MM: We did not plan to form a new organization immediately, but our hand was forced. We and our friends thought, “So we’re out of the party. What to do? We must found an organization, start publishing a paper”.
TW: Was this around the time you encountered Jabra Nicola?
MM: We encountered Jabra Nicola in 1963, a few months after starting Matzpen in 1962. He came to us accompanied by some other comrades, Arabs and Jews. We had published our paper with a critical attitude towards official Communism. The perspective was not sophisticated, perhaps even occasionally naive, of trying to found something fresh with radical socialists and Marxists in Israel. This aroused Nicola's interest. We started discussions. Shortly after, he and a few others joined Matzpen. That was the first phase of growth.
RR: He had been a member of the Communist Party?
MM: Yes. They knew about his Trotskyism, he was assigned as editor of their literary magazine so that he could not address anything directly political. He was a self-taught man having left school aged eleven or twelve. His Hebrew was excellent, and his English too, as well as of course his Arabic.
RR: Around then, what was the ratio of Jews to Arabs in the Communist Party? How would you describe relations between them? Were there ethnic tensions?
MM: There may have been some bickering at the bureaucratic top, but as far as ordinary members I was not aware of any. Remember, we had very few possibilities of contact. Being in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there were no Arab members in our branches, at least initially. We tried to make contact. Once a year the party had a festival to commemorate the victory of the Red Army. Before our expulsion, we used this opportunity to try to sniff out co-thinkers in the Arab branches, but we didn’t manage to discover any.
TW: So you had not been aware of the Revolutionary Communist League and the history of Palestinian Trotskyism in the 1930s and 1940s. Did Jabra Nicola make you aware of this history?
MM: Yes, Jabra had been a member early on in the Trotskyist movement in Palestine. You can read about it in Tony Cliff's biography by Ian Birchall. He is mentioned as an early member. There was a trio: him, Yigael Gluckstein (better known as Tony Cliff), and Gabriel Baer, who later became a professor of Middle Eastern economy—an Orientalist in the better sense of the word, not in the Edward Said dismissive sense. Jabra was the youngest of the three.
TW: What influenced the development of Matzpen's particular understanding of Zionism? Were you aware of and influenced by contemporary theories and arguments concerning racism and nationalism in the New Left internationally?
MM: In retrospect, the formation of Matzpen was part of a world phenomenon. If you look at the early 1960s, there was a reformation of a sort of new radical left. It happened in Japan, in Britain, in the United States, maybe a bit later. We were part of this general phenomenon, without realizing it. We were not really influenced by other sections of this new world movement, or its analysis of racism. Putting racism in the center is not the right way to look at it. Obviously there was racism involved. It was evident. But from our point of view, it was part of the superstructure. What concerned us was what was the real structure of the place we were living. We realized, especially learning from Jabra Nicola, that we were dealing with a conflict of colonization. To be precise: I’m not saying it was a colonial conflict, but a conflict of colonization.
Colonialism is a world phenomenon, a world structure. Let me explain via the history of the U.S.: Colonial times stopped with American independence, it was no longer a colony. But colonization, of what became the U.S., went on apace during the 19th century. What took place after American independence was a process of colonization. Israel was fundamentally structurally different from Algeria or South Africa, where the settlers built a colony on indigenous labor; that was an exploitative colonization. Algeria was a case of colonialism. South Africa was not a colony by the 1960s, it was also under a conflict of colonization—but different than in Israel. What we were confronted with in Israel-Palestine was in this respect more like North America.
RR: It seems that Zionism is unique in the history of colonization. Colonization that exploits indigenous populations is motivated by material concerns, whereas Zionism seems motivated by ideological concerns. But though Zionism was colonial oppression of Palestinians, to many Jews it seemed a movement of national liberation. I’m curious coming from a left-Zionist background and then moving to the Communist party, how you understood that.
MM: I wouldn’t say it was completely ideological. There was a material incentive. The incentive was not of big Jewish capitalists, who kept away from Zionism, or at least didn’t merge with Zionism proper. It was a primarily petit-bourgeois movement of Jews, basically from Eastern Europe, who had lost the economic basis of their existence and experienced persecution as a minority in non-Jewish societies. This led to huge a emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe mostly to North America, some to Palestine. It was reasonable to imagine that if they emigrated to North America, they would end up better off. Quite a few were motivated by the wish to create their own society, to solve the economic problem as well as achieve a feeling of nationhood, by forming a Jewish state. That accounts for Zionism: It is not a capitalist bourgeois movement, but is more typically a petit-bourgeois movement of déclassé Jewish masses in Eastern Europe. However, in the early 20th century, the Jews of Eastern Europe, before they were exterminated by the Nazis, had their own language, their own culture, and were concentrated in certain areas. In some parts of the Russian empire, they formed the majority of the population. If you look at a town like Pinsk, it was 70% Jewish, and the little shtetls around it were 100% Jewish. So it was like a nationality. The majority of people there didn’t go for Zionism. They were either non-political and went to America, or others were organized by the Bund, a socialist and originally Marxist movement, who didn’t go for Zionism, but wanted national autonomy within those areas.
RR: So did Matzpen consider Israeli Jews a nationality?
MM: We were actually confronted with an unmistakeable reality that the settler community of Jewish origin in Palestine, and later Israel, formed a new nationality. That happens everywhere where settlers base their economy not on exploiting the native population, but excluding them. When we grew up, in reference to this new entity, Zionist ideology did not allow it to be called a separate nation. Zionist ideology held that the Jews all over the world were already a nation, but the new entity’s special character was linguistically recognized as the Hebrew people. If you look at the English translation of the Israeli declaration of independence of 1948, you find no mention of it because it is a false translation. In the Hebrew original, ‘Hebrew community’ is mentioned three times, and the third time it is called “the Hebrew people,” as distinct from “the Jewish people.” When they talk about the Jews all over the world, they say the Jewish people. But when they talk about the settlers in Palestine, they say “the Hebrew Yishuv.”
TW: Matzpen's analysis of Zionism is of a particular form of settler colonialism. But there was also the strategic assessment that combating the ideology of Zionism in the Israeli working class as first priority: you couldn’t have a possible revolutionary movement in Israel without breaking Israeli Jewish workers from it. How was your analysis part of a political project, and how did you try to accomplish the goals?
MM: This is the greatest problem that any revolutionary group in Israel faces. How to combine the struggle for socialism with the struggle against Zionism. Your description, which is taken from an old piece called “The Class Nature of Israeli Society,” requires modification. (( Hanegbi, Machover and Orr, “The Class Nature of Israeli Society”, New Left Review 65, Jan-Feb 1971. Reprinted in Machover, Israelis and Palestinians, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012): 76-98. )) Israel has undergone enormous transformation from the time that was written. A few years ago I published a collection of essays ranging from the 1960s to present times, titled Israelis and Palestinians. (( Machover, Israelis and Palestinians, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012) )) Very little of what I have written over these years requires any serious updating. Things, depressingly, haven’t changed much. But the one piece that is completely out-of-date is “The Class Nature of Israeli Society,” which was the most popular and most reproduced of my pieces. The economic structure of Israel has changed, since the 1980s, from being one of the most egalitarian capitalist countries, to being one of the least egalitarian, probably second only to the US. The Israeli Hebrew working class was subsidized by the state when we wrote that article. Since then, you have neoliberalism galore. You can see the effects with big demonstrations in the summer of 2011—the biggest ever. So there is a change in this respect.
TW: I meant at that time. How did Matzpen consider its project strategically?
MM: We were trying, to use the Chinese expression, to “walk on two legs.” That wasn’t always easy. When Matzpen was founded, being involved in working class struggle was the major aspect of our activity. We tried to involve ourselves in unofficial mass organization of workers in Action Committees. This was a way of workers getting round the oppressive role of the official trade unions under the Zionist Histadrut, which then was a kind of combination of employer and trade union. It was difficult because of the Histradut’s tight grip, for example, it provided health services in the absence of any other national health insurance. There were grassroots wishes to form independent trade unions. We tried to float the idea at the time. More recently they have been formed. But really after 1967, we engaged in trying to educate people about Zionism, including agitation through mini-demonstrations (dispersing before we got caught) and holding private meetings held in members’ homes, to which supporters and contacts were invited (this kind of political meeting is quite common in Israel, in all parts of the political spectrum).
RR: There seems to have been a shift in the ideology of anti-Zionism. There’s hardly any talk about class struggle, but many more people talking about “one state” solutions—even liberals. Can you talk about the relationship of anti-Zionism and Marxism, and whether you saw an inherent connection. But also to go back to the historical question, how did 1967 and 1973 affect Marxism?
MM: In terms of our analytical and programmatic view, very little. By 1967, we were ready with an analysis that we continued to have throughout. 1967 changed reality in a major way for the whole Middle East.
RR: In 1967 and 1973, did you have a “revolutionary defeatist” position (in the Leninist conception, where workers would gain more from their own nation's defeats, by “turning the imperialist war into a civil war” towards international revolution), or did you support the Arab side?
MM: The two are two separate questions. In 1956 during the Suez War, Israel was part of an imperialist collusion against Egypt. One wished for it to fail, one couldn't put it otherwise. At the time Matzpen didn’t exist. The 1967 six-day war ended too quickly for us to call for revolutionary defeatism. To do this you would need a sturdy working-class organization, preferably on both sides, and to call for the soldiers to turn their guns and fight your own side. That wasn’t part of reality. But what I can say is that as we viewed it then, still I view it now: The Israeli victory of 1967 was a catastrophic occurrence. There are reasons for it, but one could not be happy about it. We were devastated by it, but we didn’t believe it would last very long.
We never called for two states, we didn’t regard this as a solution, nor did we call for one state. (( Regarding Machover's opinion on the “one state” solution, he recommended his article “Belling the Cat”, Weekly Worker, Issue 990, 12 Dec 2013, available online at http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/990/palestineisrael-belling-the-cat/ )) Our position was always to connect the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli question with a socialist transformation of the region. The problem is embedded in the region of the Arab east. It was a mistake to divorce the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the problem of colonization, and the solution to the problem from socialism in the region. We put forward such a position a couple of months before June 1967. This remained the position of Matzpen so long as it existed. There are still a few of us who are committed to this line.
TW: Matzpen suffered splits in 1970-1972 from a range of different perspectives. There were two sorts of Trotskyist splinters, Ma’avak were Maoists. But why couldn't Matzpen accommodate these varying factions? I remember hearing Akiva Orr speak about Matzpen, and saying, “We didn’t care if you were Trotskyists or anarchists.” The issue for him was anti-Zionism. But these different ideological tendencies came up in Matzpen and produced arguments that led to splits.
MM: I want to clarify what Akiva Orr said: The first part [that we didn't care if you were Trotskyist] is true, the second part [referring to anarchists] may reflect Akiva Orr's views at the time of speaking. Personally, I don’t think we had any anarchists. How we would have related to them I’m not sure. Certainly, Orr defines the common ground in a negative sense: We were opposed to Zionism. What united us was Marxism and at the time most of us would have defined ourselves as Leninists. I no longer do, and certainly he didn’t, he became a kind of anarchist later. But in the 1960s, Matzpen were Marxists of the “Leninist tradition.” We could co-exist together, and we did for a while.
The double split in 1970 and the one in 1972 were motivated by different things. In 1970, two factions split in opposite directions, motivated by political sectarianism. The majority of Matzpen were not sectarian. We thought it was possible to co-exist, but some people thought otherwise. Matzpen was trying to “walk on two legs”: trying to combine the class struggle and propaganda against Zionism. The balance was tricky. The Ma’avak group, who weren’t really Maoist, though influenced by Maoism (like the Progressive Labor Party in the US), thought that our main job was to support the Palestinian struggle. They accentuated the role of Israel as a colonizing society.
The other side were influenced by a certain brand of Trotskyism, associated with the Worker’s Revolutionary Party in Britain and the Lambertists in France. They thought that Israel should be treated like a “normal” capitalist country. You should relate to the working class as you would in France, or wherever. They were a small group, even relative to Matzpen itself. Their departure didn’t immobilize Matzpen or hurt it in a way that the later split did. The 1972 split was not motivated by deep political differences. It was sectarian in a different sense of the term. By then, Jabra Nicola, the main Trotskyist figure in Matzpen, was living in London. He opposed the split but was powerless to prevent it. New recruits to Trotskyism, like Michel Warschawski, were pushed by the leadership in Europe to create a branch of the Mandelite Fourth International in Israel. For that, they would have to convert Matzpen into a branch. But they did not have a majority. So, they engineered the split. They were helped at the time by some of the other side, the majority of Matzpen, the founding generation let us say, who were attracted by more libertarian ideas, which are fairly hostile to Leninism.
RR: What was Matzpen’s relationship to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International [USec] at the time?
MM: We knew that some of our members were connected, we thought that was alright. Jabra Nicola, a veteran member of Matzpen, was a leader in the USec. He was their policy-maker on the Arab east, writing under the name of A. Said, or Abu Said. He never tried to hide this or impose it on others in Matzpen. He realized some of us were not keen to join this world organization. Our position was, “There is a tendency in Matzpen related to the USec, so as long as this is open and there is nothing under-handed, you’re at liberty to associate̶ with it but the rest of us don’t want to join. We don’t want Matzpen to be a section.” As far as I know, under pressure from their European leadership, quite recklessly, they split. So Matzpen split into two more or less equal parts. We had one group that was doing well, but then it split into two groups, both of which were under the critical mass.
RR: How large was Matzpen in the late 1960s, early 1970s?
MM: A few dozen. I couldn’t give you a number, but not more than fifty.
TW: Retrospectively, what was Matzpen's historical significance? Did your work do anything to advance the possibility of socialist revolution in the Arab states and Israel? What lessons can be learned from the strategic attempt to combat the ideology of Zionism in the Israeli Jewish working class?
MM: I think the influence of Matzpen has been enormous, especially relative to its small size. Today young people in Israel keep discovering the ideas of Matzpen and being astounded at things we wrote in 1967, for example calling for immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories. A document is in front of me here, hanging on my wall. We said, “Occupation leads to oppression, oppression leads to terror and counter-terror. We will become a nation of victims and murderers. We must get out of the occupied territories.” This was published in Haaretz in 1967 as a paid advertisement. It wasn’t officially by Matzpen, but many of us signed it. We sowed certain seeds that did not completely germinate, but we provided an analysis. I still stand by it, and a lot of people who are thinking along Marxist lines, not along nationalist lines, are persuaded by it. Our analysis stands, and our predictions stand. For example, in 1975, forty years ago, Emmanuel Farjoun and I published an analysis, and you can find a translation in my book from 2012. (( Machover, (2012): 26-34. )) We said that Israel is going to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state, a two state solution is not going to happen. We explained why. You read it now—it’s correct.
As we said then, the Israeli-Palestinian issue can only be solved within the framework of regional revolution. The strategy for this is to form a regional organizational framework, with a component in Israel and a component in the Arab regions, that can work together to prepare this. But those who think the problem in Israel-Palestine can be solved in the near future are deluding themselves. The only social group that can overthrow Zionism is the Israeli working class. But they are not going to do it now because at present it has no interest in doing it, short of being part of the dominant class in the region. Exchanging its present position as an exploited class with national privileges to being part of a regional ruling class without national privileges, would be a good deal. Otherwise it will not overthrow Zionism. And if it will not overthrow Zionism, the problem cannot be solved.
TW: Many people like myself have been influenced by the analysis that Matzpen gave, but is anyone carrying out that kind of political work, and is it possible under present circumstances?
MM: I think it is certainly necessary, but whether it is possible we can only find out by trying. So far we have failed. We need regional organization. Not a centralized one, but co-thinking components, with one component in Israel, to work on a long-term project of regional transformation that would also be able to solve the Palestinian problem.
RR: Do you think in retrospect that Matzpen was overly optimistic about the PLO?
MM: The Trotskyist group that split from us in 1972, the so-called “Matzpen Marxist” journal, they were overly optimistic. At one stage they defined themselves as part and parcel of the PLO. Our side never did. Incidentally, Jabra Nicola was scathing about people like Yasser Arafat. At that time I thought he was overdoing it. If we meet in heaven or in hell, he will tell me, “Arafat was going to betray the Palestinian revolution, and I knew exactly why.” We called to recognize the PLO as the leaders of the Palestinian people, which was a fact. We had no illusions about their politics or their prospects. We were critical of them. We had more time for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Hawatmeh group. But the PLO was such that our side of the 1972 split didn’t have any illusions about it.
RR: Would you say that kind of left Palestinian nationalism has disintegrated? What do you see in Israel-Palestine that you would see as supportable?
MM: The Left has disintegrated within the Palestinian movement, related to the decline in the Arab left and beyond. In the short-term, I am very pessimistic. I maybe share with Gramsci, I have optimism of the will, but not optimism of the intellect. On the contrary, I seriously think we are facing a terrible danger. Analysis and evidence point to the possibility of major ethnic cleansing. If Israel prevents a two state solution, and they are definitely not in favor of a one state solution, what is the tertium quid—the way out? The solution is for it to engineer a solution of ethnic cleansing. There is evidence that this is a contingency plan. Certainly Benjamin Netanyahu is on record as recommending it many years ago, and he is still in that line. I think this is a very real danger, and we have to try to mobilize public opinion against it.
RR: What did you think of the tent protests in 2011, which though massive appeared rather apolitical?
MM: On the contrary, the politics were very interesting. There were not only tents, but massive demonstrations, the most massive in Israeli history, about social and economic issues. They were political in one sense: They consciously and deliberately excluded reference to the occupied territories. Matters of the occupation were taboo as far as their leaders were concerned. Yet at the same time, they were very supportive and expressed great solidarity with the contemporary movement of masses in the region, for example the Egyptian masses. One of the most popular slogans was “Tahrir Square is here!” Another very popular slogan was “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu.” You cannot say this is apolitical. It shows considerable solidarity with the Egyptian and Syrian masses. This was before the struggle in Syria degenerated, when it was a progressive movement against Assad. There was even attempt to include Palestinian citizens of Israel. One of the cliches was, “here there are no Ashkenazi, Mizrahim, orthodox Jews”: we are all in this together. That was a form of class solidarity. It didn’t spill over to the occupied territories, but indicated that the way to the Palestinian problem goes through the region, not vice-versa. I hope you see what I mean. This was expressed immediately by the mood of the protestors.
TW: What prospect is there for a kind of political leadership that could organize those discontents to push against the possibility of ethnic cleansing, against more wars in the region, in a revolutionary direction, and not just to protest in public squares that eventually dissipate?
MM: There are two different issues. To prevent ethnic cleansing we have to mobilize public opinion. Only pressure from outside the region can help to stop this. You have to create a climate internationally in which this would be impossible. As to revolution, all I can say is that one has to try, try again, and keep trying, to form an organizational framework. So far we have not been successful. It is frustrating, but that’s the way it is. If we cannot manage to form an organizational framework, a leadership, in the best sense of this much-abused word, the future is very grim. |P