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Podcast review: Israeli anti-Zionists tell their own history

Archive recordings recall Matzpen, the socialist group that in the 1960s-1980s questioned the idea of a Jewish state from within

By M.P.

Photo: Working-Class History https://soundcloud.com/workingclasshistory

A recent two-part episode of the 'Working Class History' podcast covers the topic of anti-Zionism in Israel through interviews with members of the 'Israeli Socialist Organisation' (Matzpen).

The Israeli Socialist Organisation was an anti-Zionist socialist group that worked in Israel/Palestine from the early 1960s until the late 1980s. Its highly influential magazine 'Matzpen' (meaning 'compass' in Hebrew) became the common nickname of the organisation throughout the years.

The podcast begins with archive interviews with two of Matzpen's founding members: Moshe Machover, then a lecturer of Mathematics in Jerusalem; and Akiva Orr, a Tel-Aviv based activist and former leader of the Israeli Mercantile Navy strike (1951), who passed away in 2013.

Matzpen was founded in 1962 by those sympathizers and members of the 'Israeli Communist Party' (ICP), who criticised the party's unconditional support of the Soviet Union and were expelled as a result.

The first members split from the Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv branches of the ICP and were later joined by Palestinian members from the ICP's Haifa and northern branches.

Interestingly, Machover points out that anti-Zionism was not considered a main characteristic of Matzpen in its early stages, but rather a consequence of their revolutionary socialist view of world politics. However, the political discussion around criticism of Zionism suffered from a major deficiency as the only non-Zionist party at the time - the ICP - took a rather obscure position towards Zionism.

On one hand, the ICP described Zionism as an agent of western imperialism. But on the other hand it signed Israel's declaration of independence as a Jewish state. The ICP then joined the Histadrut, the dominant Zionist labour union (and major employer) which advocated replacing Palestinian labour with Hebrew labour.

The chain of events following the 1967 war, most notably the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, placed critical discussion of Zionism back in the spotlight. It became one of Matzpen's main ideological pillars.

Zionism is both a project and an ideology, aiming for a Jewish colonisation of Palestine in order to form a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. One of its (many) contradictory elements is that it is a secular movement that simultaneously claims historical ties of Jews to Israel/Palestine that are essentially based on religion. As Machover puts it, “In order to be a Zionist, you don't have to believe in God, and most early Zionists were atheists. But they did believe that God promised that part of the world to the Jews”.

Akiva Orr points out the reactionary role played by early Zionism. During the 1936-1939 Palestinian rebellion against the British mandate, the Palestinians went on a strike that paralysed key economic centres such as the Haifa harbor and refinery and the railway system. The Histadrut, the Hebrew labour union, instructed its members to act as scabs in order to replace Arab workers with Hebrew ones.

The podcast continues with interviews with later Matzpen members, describing the organisation's activity during the 1970s and early 1980s as well as the splits that led to its decline.

It ends with an interesting point Machover makes: unlike colonial projects in which the main labour was taken by the indigenous people, the Zionist colonisation of Palestine pushed aside Palestinian labour. Thus, he says, the only political force that can overthrow Zionism is the Israeli working class, and it has no interest in doing so for a capitalist resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The Working Class History podcast episodes on anti-Zionism are available to listen on Soundcloud: Part 1, Part 2

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