Book Review

By Moshé Machover

 

 

Michel Warschawski

On The Border

(Translated from French by Levi Laub)

Pluto Books/South End Press, 2005

xix + 228 pp

 

The opening sentences in the author’s preface are: ‘This book is not a work by an historian or a study of the Israeli–Arab conflict. Nor is it an autobiography.’

 

A very apt observation. If you are looking for your first read on Israel/Palestine, don’t start with this book. On the other hand, while not an autobiography, it is wholly autobiographical: a subjective account by a peace activist, deeply involved in bridging what is arguably the world’s most intractable conflict.

 

Michel Warschawski (nicknamed ‘Mikado’ because of his supposedly ‘Japanese’ features) was born in 1949 in Strasbourg, son of that city’s Chief Rabbi. At the age of 16 he moved to Jerusalem to study in a yeshiva (Talmudic college – the Jewish equivalent of a madrasa). Unlike almost all his fellow-students, who combined religious fervour with extreme chauvinism and virulent racism, he had an anti-fascist and anti-racist upbringing: Rabbi Max Warschawski had been a member of the Maquis resistance during the Second World War, and later sympathized with the Algerian struggle for independence.

Confronted with the oppressive Israeli regime of occupation following the June 1967 war, Mikado felt visceral sympathy with the oppressed, and eventually joined the Israeli Socialist Organization (ISO), better known by the name of its journal, Matzpen (Compass) – a small but highly militant revolutionary group founded in 1962. Eschewing the sectarianism that cripples the radical left almost everywhere, Matzpen included members (both Jews and Arabs) of various Marxist persuasions, united by thorough internationalism and, consequently, opposition to Zionism.

The 1967 war brought the issue of Zionist colonization and the nature of the Israeli state into the limelight. But during the preceding decade this topic had lain dormant backstage and was largely ignored in Israel itself as well as abroad. In this respect Matzpen was exceptional: it developed a detailed critical analysis of Zionism as a colonizing project and of Israel as a settler state of a specific kind. So, when the 1967 war erupted, Matzpen was prepared: armed with a theory that allowed it to face the difficult struggle in conditions of virtually total isolation.

What gave this small embattled group considerable encouragement was the upsurge – precisely in the post-1967 period: in the late 1960s and the 1970s – of a new wave of the international left, of which Matzpen rightly saw itself as part.[1]

During that heyday of the international left, Mikado shared with many others an exhilarating optimism, looking forward to a world revolution, ‘unfolding now or at least in the very near future. The Palestinian resisters were the catalysts of the soon-to-come uprising of the workers of Cairo and Damascus, which would reunify the Arab nation under socialism after overthrowing the reactionary regimes of the region, including, clearly the Zionist state.’ (p. 38)

But even in those heady times he felt he was paying a high emotional price (or perhaps so it seems to him now, in retrospect): ‘that internationalism … involved voluntarily giving up an identity, a step that rather quickly proved to be politically sterile and personally destabilizing. … Having chosen to be citizens of the world, or members of an international class, we willingly cut off the roots that bound us to our society and our culture.’ (p. 39) So, when his naďve revolutionary socialist optimism was frustrated, he reverted to embracing the spiritual identity of what he feels to be his real community.

This ideology that he now espouses is not so much Israeli-Hebrew patriotism – which he criticizes for its ‘tribalism’ – but a ‘diasporic’ Jewish identity, an ideology that (for lack of a better term) may be described as ‘ethno-patriotism’.

Like all patriotic ideologies, this is a form of false consciousness, made up of a large measure of nostalgia and wishful thinking: in historical reality, the dominant trends in diasporic Jewish tradition have been no less tribalist, not to say xenophobic.[2] But Mikado’s idiosyncratic construction has some saving grace: it enabled him to cling to what has proved to be the most stable progressive element in his make-up: anti-racism and solidarity with the oppressed.

So, while discarding his erstwhile socialist revolutionary militancy and even his presumed atheist outlook, both of which proved to be less firmly rooted,[3] he reinvented himself as a combative and courageous peace activist, founder of the Alternative Information Centre,[4] and an anti-Zionist dissident. (In Israel he is still described as being on the ‘radical left’. But that is due to the special meaning this term has acquired in Israel: contrary to its usage everywhere else, it has no necessary socio-economic connotation, and refers only to a person’s position on war and peace and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In the book under review, ‘left’ is used in this specifically Israeli sense.)

Of course, the shift from revolutionary socialism to the peace activism of an ethno-patriot involves a significant change in perspective and attitude.

Genuine socialists are profoundly committed to supporting all struggles for human liberation – including of course the liberation of any oppressed national group. But this support is proffered from a socialist platform, which is quite different from nationalism, and by no means involves concessions to any nationalist ideology ­– not even to that of an oppressed nation. Socialists are – or ought to be – aware of the ambiguous role and unreliable nature of a petty-bourgeois nationalist leadership, and keep their critical faculties on full alert. On the other hand, joint action, genuine comradeship and personal friendship between socialists belonging to oppressed and oppressing national groups is not only possible but in fact fairly common, because they share a common socialist outlook and an overriding internationalist commitment, and regard their respective national identities as a matter of mere accident of birth rather than of positive active choice.

But where this common overriding commitment to socialist internationalism is lacking, matters are quite different. A person who actively embraces Jewishness as a primary identity and a Palestinian nationalist are not equal partners in a common struggle. The former, even if s/he is anti-Zionist, can at best extend solidarity and support to the latter, but must refrain from offering any programmatic opinion and advice, lest it be interpreted as a colonialist patronizing the colonized. The two remain politically separated by The Border – hence the title of the book! – even when trying to bridge it. And in such circumstances ‘… an intimacy in personal relations that does away with ethnic or religious belonging, and which one can call friendship, is almost impossible to achieve.’ (p. 63)

The difference between socialist internationalism, to which Mikado had formerly subscribed, and his present ethnic identity-based peace activism is illustrated by his account of the following episode (p. 139):

‘A few months after the signing of the Oslo accords, in 1993, in the course of a discussion that included activists of the Palestinian and Israeli far left, I heard an Israeli woman militant explain, like a teacher presenting a lesson to her students, that accepting a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was pure and simple treason. 

‘She received a curt response from a Palestinian militant who had been in all the battles and had spent years in prison: “Why do you take it upon yourself to refuse us an independent state, even a tiny one, in less than 22 percent of our national territory?  Are you going to endure fifty more years of occupation and violence?”

‘But it was the insensitive response of the Israeli militant that needs to be pondered: “I see that even the Palestinian left has lost the desire to fight...” ‘

Now, even if we take Mikado’s account at face value, as factually accurate – which is by no means safe, given his numerous deviations from strict adherence to veracity (of which more anon) – the fact remains that the Oslo Accords were indeed a monumental monstrous confidence trick played by the Israeli government on a politically submissive or at best gullible Palestinian petty-bourgeois leadership. The unnamed Israeli militant surely had a clearer insight (based on something like inside knowledge) into the true intentions and devious modus operandi of ‘her own’ government than did the Palestinian veteran of battles and prisons. He was under the false impression that the Oslo Accords would provide the Palestinians with an independent state, albeit a tiny one. Was it not her duty to warn him against falling into the trap of this illusion?

More generally, the difference between a radical socialist perspective and that of Mikado’s latter-day ethno-patriotic peace activism is reflected in the politics and personalities of the Palestinians with whom he allies himself, as reported in this book (which include some unsavoury members of the venal elite of the Palestinian Authority). A leftist radical would confine his close alliances to like-minded leftists.

Also, his position on Zionism seems to have softened. Somehow, this book creates the impression that Zionism acquired its colonizing character following the 1967 war, rather than being a colonizing project from its inception.

I have alluded above to the book’s many misstatements. This is an unfortunate failing on which it is a reviewer’s unavoidable duty to dwell. While it makes interesting reading, full of fascinating – albeit often quite subjective and debatable – observations about various aspects of Israeli society, the book cannot be treated as a dependable source of facts. Any factual statement or report found in it must be taken with a large pinch of salt, pending its verification with more reliable sources. A considerable number of these, which I have been able to check either from direct first-hand knowledge or from the evidence of several highly trustworthy witnesses, have proved to be extremely unsound if not largely fabricated.

Apart from many factual errors due to simple carelessness, the more significant departures from factual accuracy are mainly of three kinds. The first, which is of least importance and which an indulgent reader may most easily pardon, is the author’s persistent tendency to inflate his own role in various events and activities. These exaggerations, accompanied by name-dropping so relentless as to be comical, are actually quite unnecessary and counter-productive: even reduced to their true proportion, Mikado’s contributions – involving real personal sacrifices – to the struggle against injustice deserve considerable respect.

A second group of misleading statements – of much greater importance and interest to the general reader – are on matters concerning the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the so-called “Peace Process”. Here are a couple of outstanding examples.

On p. 152 the author states:

‘According to Oslo, the system [of closures] would disappear within five years and give way to an independent [Palestinian] state possessing territorial continuity, real borders, and thus, sovereignty.’

In fact – and as Mikado must surely know ­– the Oslo Accords said nothing of the kind. They promised no such thing. True, at the time there was much informal and unofficial chatter about a sovereign Palestinian state having territorial contiguity; but the crucial fact is that Israel studiously avoided making any formal commitment to any of this. Nor did it commit itself to removing its illegal settlements from the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, or even to halting the process of colonization of these territories. The sad truth is that Yassir ‘Arafat signed on the dotted line, if not as a conscious act of capitulation then as a result of self-delusion, encouraged by nods and winks of inveterate political con-artists such as Shimon Peres. At the time, many Israeli peace activists shared this wishful thinking, and encouraged ‘Arafat in going along with it; but this does not justify spreading such alternative misinformation long after the event.

On p. 165 the author tells us that only after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995

‘[t]he previously minority ideas of the right had become official policy, particularly with regard to the settlements. … The colonization of the West Bank and Gaza became one of the components of the new consensus, the only debate being the question of the number of new settlements. It explains why so many Labor voters and activists had no problem shifting heir vote to Sharon a few years later.’ (Emphasis in the original.)

This is simply untrue. The colonization of the territories occupied in 1967 was initiated immediately – when the guns were still smoking – under a Labour-led government, and with its full complicity and encouragement: first in Jerusalem and a large area around it; in the Golan Heights (where it was accompanied by major ethnic cleansing); slightly later in Hebron. Then it proceeded to the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the north of the Sinai Peninsula (which was subsequently returned to Egypt by the first Likkud government led by Menahem Begin). Plain statistics, which is freely available, shows that the metastasis of colonization spread, and the number of settlers increased, at a steadily accelerating pace under all Israeli governments since then – including the Labour-led government headed by Rabin. While that government was negotiating the Oslo Accords, as well as after they had been signed, this colonization continued relentlessly.[5]

Indeed, anyone who was paying close attention to what the Rabin government was doing on the ground could have realized that they had no serious intention of allowing the creation of a truly sovereign and territorially contiguous Palestinian state. Their aim was evidently the creation of a kind of Indian Reservation, or a disconnected set of such reservations, policed on Israel’s behalf by ‘Arafat and his CIA-trained security forces. I suspect that the unnamed Israeli militant, whom Mikado excoriates for her ‘insensitive’ warning to the Palestinian veteran, realized all this and deserves Mikado’s apology.

A third group of systematic distortions concerns Matzpen. This may not be of much interest to the general reader but only to those wishing to know the detailed history of the revolutionary left in our region. However, as a founding member of Matzpen, I feel duty-bound to set the record straight. A reader who is not curious about these minutiae may stop reading the present review at this point.

The evident common aim of these prevarications and evasions is to make it seem as though the group that Mikado joined after the 1967 war – the ISO (Matzpen) – was from the start a wholly or largely Trotskyist organization. Indeed, this myth is widely repeated in Trotskyist circles, and has even found its way to the version of the Wikipedia in Mikado’s native language, French: the entry devoted to Michel Warschawski,

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Warschawski

claims: En 1967, il adhčre au mouvement trotskiste antisioniste Matzpen aujourd'hui disparu.

 

This is, as the French say, a canard. When Matzpen was founded, in 1962, it had not a single Trotskyist member. A handful of Trotskyists, led by the Arab Marxist intellectual Jabra Nicola, joined the group more than a year later, on the understanding that they could keep their individual ties with the Brussels-based Fourth International, provided they did so openly; but the group as such would not affiliate to that organization. The majority resolutely opposed such affiliation, and we all agreed that it was important to keep the broad non-sectarian unity of various shades of Marxist opinion.

 

The story Mikado tells on pp. 24–25 about the creation of Matzpen (when he was still a schoolboy in Strasbourg) is carefully crafted to give wings to that canard. It could serve as a nice illustration to the comment made by Catherine, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, about historical writing: ‘it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.’

To make the invention somewhat less dull, he embroiders it with some of his choicest hyperboles. Thus, a Trotskyist comrade, an office worker in the Haifa Refineries, who kept such a low profile as to be almost invisible, is transmogrified into ‘a well-known and respected leader of workers in the Haifa bay area’. To be fair, these exaggerations are not confined to Trotskyist comrades. One of the founding members, who as a young man had taken part in the epic seamen’s strike of 1951 as an ordinary striker, is described, quite ludicrously, as ‘one of the leaders’ of that strike. A few pages later (p. 30), the present reviewer is described as a ‘brilliant orator’; I wish.

But the most astounding untruth in the whole tall tale is one of omission: the one political leftist group that Mikado actually founded and led jusqu'ŕ ce qu'il ait disparu is never mentioned by name: the ‘Revolutionary Communist League’, Israeli section of the Brussels-based Fourth International; nor is a single word said about its creation.[6]

Here is a brief account of what happened. By 1972, Mikado was apparently convinced not only that the world revolution was at hand, but also that it was going to be orchestrated by the said Brussels HQ. He therefore pressed for the ISO (Matzpen) to affiliate itself to the Fourth International. As he could not gain sufficient support for this move, he engineered a destructive sectarian split – as a result of which, instead of one non-sectarian group whose size was just above the critical mass that enabled it to make a significant mark on the Israeli political scene, there were now two groups of roughly equal size, both below that critical mass. By then Jabra Nicloa – the one Trotskyist comrade who, with his profound understanding of the Arab East, made a valuable contribution to Matzpen’s political theory – had moved to London and was in bad health. Opposed to the split, he was unable to prevent it. (His ashes must now be turning in their urn at the political twists of his disciple: he despised petty-bourgeois Palestinian nationalism and until his death in 1974 kept warning us against its impending betrayal.)

The splinter group led by Mikado, the Jerusalem-based  ‘Revolutionary Communist League’, wished to appropriate the political prestige won by Matzpen among the radical left in Israel and abroad, and therefore claimed this name for themselves. As they had no legitimate right, let alone legal ownership, over the journal Matzpen, they published their own rival journal, ‘Matzpen Marxist’. (It sounded better than ‘Matzpen Trotskyist’.) They rightly assumed that the ISO, which of course remained in existence and continued to publish the original Matzpen, would not sue them in a Zionist court for misappropriation of the title. Thereafter, the RCL was usually referred to in Israel as ‘Matzpen Jerusalem’, while the original group, the ISO, was referred to as ‘Matzpen Tel-Aviv’.

Mikado may well believe that his sect had some moral title to the name ‘Matzpen’; although in my opinion this view is mistaken, it is understandable that he should hold it. But the honest thing to do would have been to tell the reader that after the split (and until the demise of the RCL) there were two groups using that name, and make it clear to which of the two he is referring. He deliberately avoids doing this, and for this reason suppresses all mention of the split he engineered and of the official name of the group he founded and led. This economy with the truth is designed to create the false impression that there was always one Matzpen, and it was a Trotskyist group.

Such behaviour can only be described as devious and reprehensible. And it has some absurd consequences.

On p. 41 he tells a little amusing story about the strange practices of the (unspecified) ‘Matzpen’:

‘One of my duties was to lead a small cell in the village of Tira. Once or twice a week there, I tried to organize the political work of a dozen Palestinian activists, who, although they shared our radical critiques of Zionism and Israeli policy, found it hard to adapt to the rigid rules of an organization in which Leninism was embodied in a maze of hierarchical structures (from the political bureau to branch secretaries – despite the fact that our active membership never exceeded 50!). Politely, the activists regularly voted on the resolutions submitted by the central committee, only to do exactly as they pleased once the meeting was over.’

Here is the reinvented Mikado, no longer a revolutionary militant, commenting sardonically on the follies of the group in which his former youthful Leninist self was an activist. What he omits to tell the reader is that the Matzpen that he originally joined, the ISO, had very different structure, culture and ethos: open and non-hierarchical; and that he himself split Matzpen-ISO precisely in order to install in his groupuscule the kind of caricature-Leninism he now so wittily derides.

 

Read this book – not as a sound factual record, but as a series of sometimes insightful observations, and a subjective account of Mikado’s peace activism and the work of the AIC, which has played a very positive and commendable role in fighting injustice and disseminating information about the occupation.

 

One final note about the translation: it is fairly competent and fluent, but contains quite a few Gallicisms that should have been corrected. Hebrew and Arabic terms and names are usually given in their French rather than English transcription, and acronyms are kept in their French form (thus for example on p. 171 ‘National Religious Party’ is abbreviated as ‘PNR’).

 

 



[1] For information on Matzpen, its history and political positions, see http://www.matzpen.org/index.asp?p=100

[2] For a more erudite and critical view see Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three thousand Years, Pluto Press, 1994.

[3] One of the most puzzling and significant lacunae in this book (which devotes much space to the author’s mental struggles) is the lack of any account of what had persuaded him to become a Marxist, and later a Trotskyist. Another astonishing lacuna is the absence of any account of what made him lose his religious faith in the late 1960s. He now describes himself not as an atheist but as an ‘agnostic’ (p. 66). Significantly, the solidarity meeting with Mikado, on the eve of his imprisonment in November 1989, took place in a synagogue. He asks the reader: ‘is this a paradox or a symbol?’ (p. 129) In the opinion of this reviewer it is an apparent paradox and a true symbol.

[4] See http://www.alternativenews.org/

[5] See my article, Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and resolution http://www.iran-bulletin.org/palestineisrael.htm, especially Table at p. 31.

[6] The name is mentioned in the English version of the Wikipedia: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Warschawski