Revolutionary anti-Zionism: a discussion with Moshe Machover

2 April 2024
Vashti Fox
Moshe Machover PHOTO: Hannah Machover

Moshe Machover is the only surviving founding member of the revolutionary anti-Zionist organisation Matzpen. Matzpen influenced a generation of both Israeli and Palestinian opponents of Israel, and leaves an important theoretical legacy for socialists today. Vashti Fox interviewed Machover about his life, the history of Matzpen and its theoretical insights regarding Zionism and colonisation.

VF: You were born in Israel in 1936. Could you describe how you got involved in political activism?

MM: At the age of 12 I got involved in the socialist Zionist youth movement called Hashomer Hatzair. It tried to combine Zionism with Marxism in a somewhat Stalinist way. The two components did not fit well together. Interestingly, for some people it functioned as a conveyor belt from Zionism to Marxism. Some very well-known Trotskyists went through this process: Abraham Leon and Ernest Mandel for instance.

This was a different time of course. By the time I was about 15 or 16, together with a couple of friends of mine, we became disenchanted with the amalgam of Marxism and Zionism. We were impressed with the Marxism we were taught and didn’t see how this fitted with Zionism. We tried to blend the two but couldn’t see our way to a satisfactory solution and we ended up in the Communist Party.

I wouldn’t regard the position of the Communist Party at that time as properly anti-Zionist. This was the high point of Stalinism. The Israeli Communist Party and the official Communist movement worldwide were not Zionist, but their critique of Zionism was not very deep. Their argument was that Zionism was a tool of imperialism, but that the nature of the Zionist project was not itself a colonial one.

I want to point that out because there’s a general issue involved here. The Zionist colonisation project is unique in some respects. Unlike most other colonial projects, it didn’t have its own metropole. You see, Australia had a metropole: Britain. Britain sent its own citizens to Australia to colonise the land. It defended them and acted to advance their position with regard to the indigenous people.

The Zionist project didn’t have its own metropole—it didn’t have the mother country. It needed a surrogate mother, an imperialist power to help it get established and survive. So, it went to whichever imperialist power was dominant at that time. It proposed a deal: you become our surrogate mother in exchange for services rendered.

The early Zionist movement attempted to make a deal with German imperialism very early on in the nineteenth century. It didn’t work out. Then the Zionist movement made a deal with Britain. The document that sealed this deal was the Balfour Declaration [of 1917].

So, to return to the Israeli Communist Party: when we joined, it was critical of Zionism to the extent that it was seen as doing the bidding of the imperialists. It did not understand Zionism as having a colonising project of its own. Of course, what it understood to be the imperialists were its own imperial enemies. The only imperialist countries were the anti-Soviet ones.

So, you joined the Communist Party when you were 15 or 16. What year was that and what kind of activities were you involved in as a party member?

It was 1952. It was a united party at that time, with both Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish members. Once I had graduated from secondary school and became a university student, I moved to Jerusalem and enrolled in the University of Jerusalem. We did all the usual things—selling the newspaper and having public discussions.

The year 1956 had a very important influence on the evolution of those of us who would eventually split from the Communist Party and form Matzpen.

Because of the war over the Suez Canal or because of the Soviet Union crushing the workers’ revolution in Hungary?

Ah, there you have it. You see, the two things had a contradictory effect. Hungary led us to start thinking more critically about the various positions of the Israeli Communist Party and official world Communism. But the Suez war delayed our defection.

While Hungary exposed the regressive role of Communism, the position of the party on Suez was decent. They opposed the war. In fact, they distinguished themselves as the only party that immediately came out against the war. The Soviet Union helped put an end to the Israeli occupation of Egyptian territory, including the Gaza Strip. These positions delayed our disaffection with the party, but eventually our frustrations grew. They kept growing until 1962, when Matzpen was born.

Were there other events or political currents that were influencing you during this period?

The general atmosphere fed into our disaffection. We were aware, not in a very systematic way, but we were still aware that the Communist movement worldwide was in crisis. We came across several New Left publications.

Other events also influenced us in a critical direction. The events in Iraq, for example. The Communist Party of Iraq had been an enormous force that had preserved itself under conditions of illegality and had a big following in the Iraqi working class. They were in a position to aim for power, but under the obvious instructions of the Soviet Union they were told to not rock the boat. The USSR was more concerned with maintaining their alliances across the region than in supporting an “adventure” of the working classes trying to take power. This was an obvious failure that signified to us that the Communist movement was no longer a revolutionary movement in any sense. It started to indicate that the Israeli Communist Party was not a revolutionary party. It was, as we saw it, a party whose sole role was to do good PR for the Soviet Union. But they didn’t want to aim, in any way, for revolution in Israel, or anywhere.

The Cuban Revolution also influenced us. We saw that initially the Cuban Revolution had broken out independently of the Cuban Communist Party and the Soviet Union. It seemed to signal something new. These were just a few of the reasons why we started to discuss forming a new organisation outside the Communist Party.

Of course we had to hold any discussions in secret. It was difficult because the various branches of the party were forbidden to talk to each other. Several of us were in Jerusalem but others were in Tel Aviv. We obviously couldn’t receive permission from the party bureaucrats to have the discussions, so we had to be discreet. Nevertheless, a journalist got wind of our meetings and published an article describing our discussions, and we were summarily expelled. So we were forced out before we were actually ready to form a new organisation. We were presented with a situation where we simply had to start something new.

So, in 1962 you were expelled from the Communist Party and formed Matzpen. Am I right in thinking it was initially on a fairly loose ideological basis?

Well, we all shared our analysis of Communism. We understood that the Communist movement was not revolutionary: it did not aim for working class power; it was there to defend the interests of the Soviet Union,

I had spent two years in Poland doing work for my PhD. There, I observed the so-called socialist countries from close quarters and I rapidly came to the conclusion that this was not my idea of socialism.

Were you reading other anti-Stalinist critiques?

Yes, some of us were reading Trotsky. His autobiography and his History of the Russian Revolution. We were gradually developing our ideas.

You see, this period where Matzpen was developing its ideas was after the Suez war and before the war of 1967 [during which Israel fought a coalition of Arab states over six days in June and won, resulting in the seizure of territory in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon and the mass displacement of civilians]. Between these two events was a period when the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians was most quiescent, on the surface at least. It was more in the background. This gave us enough time to organise ourselves and develop our ideas.

Unfortunately, the core of those of us who formed Matzpen were all Jewish but we wanted to reach out to Palestinian and Arab members of the Communist Party. Even before we left the party, we were looking for contacts in other branches. We were always trying. There was a yearly festival of all members and supporters of the Communist Party on the day of the Soviet victory in WW2. During this festival we tried to form contacts. But we failed.

When we were expelled, we started publishing a paper, by the name of Matzpen. Once the paper started being published it began to be seen by others. Notably, by a number of Palestinian Arabs in Haifa.

So, in early 1963, we were joined by a group of people from both national backgrounds. One of these was Jabra Nicola. He was the person who probably had the most significant influence on the development of the ideas of Matzpen. He was probably the most important Palestinian Marxist in the twentieth century. He was very original. Although he was a member of the Fourth International [an international grouping of revolutionaries founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938], he didn’t insist, and in fact didn’t succeed, in making us join the Fourth International. But he influenced our ideas about Zionism and about nationalism in the negative sense, because he was a firm internationalist. But he also educated us in the true nature of the Zionist project. We were very receptive and so we were won over. Particularly to one important insight. That is, that Zionism is a colonial project. Today, you can hear this on every street and in almost every speech. It isn’t always used in the right Marxist sense, but nevertheless.

So what was your concept of Zionism and colonialism? How did it evolve?

Well just after the Suez War, Akiva Orr and I wrote a book criticising the position of the Communist Party. To some extent it was a halfway house between the position of the CP and the one we eventually came to. But when we were told about Nicola’s position, in reasonable Marxist terms, we agreed. We understood that Zionism was not just an ideology about how deal with the so-called Jewish problem, it was not just a movement, but a project.

From a Marxist point of view, there are different types of colonisation. For instance, if you compare Australia with South Africa, you can see the differences. Both were cases of colonisation by a European power but they differ in one fundamental respect. Australian colonisation did not require the labour power of the indigenous people. Production was based on the settlers. In South Africa, African labour was vital to the colonising project.

Our position was that Israel was more like Australia. It did not require the labour power of the indigenous population of the land; the Arabs and Palestinians. More than this. You can see the whole evolution of Zionist colonisation. It has its own inherent logic which is to get rid of the dangerous people, the indigenous population. They are surplus to requirements. This happened in Australia and in North America, except in the slave states where the political economy was based not on the settlers but on the labour power of the slave population. This was also the case in Brazil.

In all the cases of the Australian and Israel type colonisation, the issue has been settled in favour of the settlers. This gives us not a very optimistic view of what is likely in Israel. There is no precedent in which the indigenous peoples were able to decolonise. Nothing is predetermined by any means, but it is not going to be an easy task.

There are of course other differences between Zionist colonisation and Australian or North American colonisation. As I said before, the unique characteristic of Zionism is that it required a foster mother.

Zionist colonisation also came late to the scene. By the time Zionist colonisation started, all other similar models of colonisation had been settled in favour of the settlers.

There is also the fact that in Palestine, the Zionists were confronted with a single indigenous national group—a single national group which was not organised in an ancient mode of production, but was itself in the process of urbanisation. It was a national group that was also crystallised in response to colonisation. Compare that to the situation in Australia, where the Indigenous people had hundreds of languages. They did not form a single nation, and their mode of production was antique. They were not on the verge of modernisation.

Other colonies, like Australia, also allowed the immigration of anyone who was considered to be white. So it was able to overwhelm the Indigenous people by this flood of immigration. The Zionists insisted on Jewish-only colonisation. This limited them. So, we are faced with the situation where Zionism’s colonial project is still a work in progress.

And you see how it is progressing if you look at Gaza.

Can you say something about Gaza today?

The Israeli state is always looking for opportunities to go on the offensive. 7 October, as terrible as the events were, was an opportunity. I predicted that the next wave of ethnic cleansing would happen in the West Bank. But the moment Israel was attacked by its oppressed subjects in this way—which wasn’t very nice, to say the least—it became an opportunity to do not only big style revenge but also to start another wave of ethnic cleansing. What is happening in Gaza if not that? It’s clear that this is what Israel is aiming for. They want to get rid of the Palestinian population, or a major part of it, by land or by sea, boats going to the Mediterranean. There are indicators pointing in this direction. This isn’t an accident. It is the logical outcome of the nature of the colonising project.

All we can do is be active to try to prevent this project’s success.

The interview has been edited for length.

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