The Fraternity of Traitors

A new book about Matzpen places the revolutionary Israeli group in a global context but fails to encompass their true legacy.

The Israeli leftist group Matzpen has already been the subject of several academic investigations, but Lutz Fiedler’s new book Matzpen: A History of Israeli Dissidence makes novel and important contributions to the topic. With a mastery of the archive and a powerful feel for the history of ideas, Fiedler locates Matzpen within the field of the global New Left of the 1960s and ‘70s, drawing connections not only to Europe but to the Arab world and the decolonizing countries of Africa. The book also describes, in gripping detail, how the group emerged through a meeting of minds between ex-members of the Communist Party of Israel and young bohemians, as well as the series of splits which led to its demise as the prospects for a Middle Eastern revolution appeared to recede. Unfortunately, the narrative is hampered by a disregard for some of the complexities of the Israeli society which Matzpen sought to transform, as well as by an ideologically heavy-handed attempt to ascribe the group’s failure to its supposed denial of the lessons of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the book’s treatment of the tension between national particularism and revolutionary universalism conveys vital lessons for today’s Left, which struggles with the same questions in different form.

The Israeli Socialist Organization, popularly known as Matzpen after the name of its journal (meaning “compass” in Hebrew, the name also echoes the word for “conscience”), was established in the early 1960s by several activists expelled from the Communist Party of Israel for their criticism of the Soviet Union. Several years later, the CPI was to split along national lines: the all-Jewish faction that retained the party’s name, led by former Zionist military leader Moshe Sneh, eventually melted back into the mainstream, while the mostly Arab faction, re-christened the New Communist List (RAKAH), remained faithful to Moscow. Matzpen pointed in a third direction: taking its cue from the emerging New Left, it pushed for a socialism independent of the Soviet model and solidarity with the decolonization struggles of the Arab peoples, while insisting on the right of the Jewish-Israeli nation to self-determination.

The group soon found itself cast beyond the pale of political legitimacy, cut off from meaningful contact with the struggles of oppressed groups within Israel. Its few Arab members, in particular, were subjected to harsh state repression; eventually many central members left the country, and Matzpen’s center of activity moved abroad. A strength of Fiedler’s book is its portrayal of Matzpen’s work in exile, where members forged crucial links not only with the European left, but also with revolutionaries from the Arab world and beyond. The biographies of several Matzpen members testify to this astounding mobility. Holocaust survivor Eli Lobel became first a prominent Matzpenist and then an economic adviser to the socialist government of Mali. The French-born Ilan Halevi led Matzpen’s Third-Worldist flank, then declared himself a Palestinian and joined the diplomatic service of the PLO. Though this is not where Fiedler’s polemical interests lie, his portrayal of Matzpen as a truly transnational phenomenon pushes back against the methodological nationalism that characterizes most political histories of Israel.

More intriguingly yet, Fiedler demonstrates that Matzpen’s activities became more transnational as hopes for regional revolution grew dimmer. Just as the alienation of Matzpen members from Israeli society grew with the hardening of the occupation and the country’s turn to neoliberalism, so did many Arab leftists grow disillusioned with the venality of post-colonial regimes and the rise of political Islam. Khamsin, “a journal of revolutionary socialists of the Middle East” published first in French and then in English, was founded at a moment when these leftists were beginning to feel isolated and hopeless. Its editorial board brought together Matzpen members such as Lobel and Avishai Ehrlich with figures like the Lebanese intellectual Leila Kadi and the Syrian philosopher Sadik al-‘Azm. Some of the book’s most moving passages describe the sacrifices that this “fraternity of traitors” made for one another—as when Kadi was forced to resign her post at Palestine Affairs after clashing with the giant of Palestinian letters, Ghassan Kanafani, who had baselessly claimed that Matzpen had been infiltrated by the Israeli security services.

But Fiedler’s account falters with regard to Matzpen’s response to the political problems presented by Israeli society itself. He seems to regard the group’s socialism as merely a component of its utopian vision, but not as a program for resolving the day-to-day issues faced by working-class Israelis. In reality it was both. While the issues faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated adequately, the most obvious lacuna is the book’s coverage of the country’s intra-Jewish ethnic hierarchy. When the Israeli Black Panthers burst onto the political scene in 1971, Matzpen, like other sections of the overwhelmingly Ashkenazi Left, greeted the emergence of this grassroots movement of poor Mizrahi youth enthusiastically. Strong ties emerged between individual Matzpenists and Panthers, although the extent of any organizational influence continues to be debated. In their research on the relationship, Tali Lev and Yehuda Shenhav contend that the establishment used the Matzpen connection to discredit the Panthers as dupes of the devious Ashkenazi radicals, while Matzpen itself tried to shape the Panthers’ struggle into the mold of a class-reductionist Marxism. A perusal of Khamsin’s 1978 special issue on “oriental Jewry,” which is replete with racist stereotypes, sadly corroborates this view. Fiedler cites Lev and Shenhav, but otherwise the Mizrahi question is nowhere discussed in the book.

Similarly, little to no mention is made of the diverse ecology of non-Zionist left-wing organizations that emerged in the 1970s, and which Joel Beinin and I have elsewhere called “the independent left.” Groups like New Israeli Left (SIAH) and Socialist Israeli Left (SHASI) were differentiated from Matzpen by their greater determination to make an impact within Israeli society, which generated greater sensitivity to issues such as gender and ethnicity. As Ehud Ein-Gil writes (Hebrew), the relationship between this milieu and Matzpen was tense but often productive. A shifting chain of ideological boycotts and pragmatic collaborations linked the Zionist Left to the PLO through the independent Left and Matzpen. These links were arguably crucial to the mainstreaming, in both societies, of the “two-state solution”—about which, ironically, Matzpen was highly ambivalent.

The spirited arguments between Matzpen and its Israeli, Palestinian, and other interlocutors were mostly conducted in a language of “national self-determination,” which has since become somewhat obsolete. Following the two world wars and under the influence of Soviet orthodoxy, the global Left by and large accepted the idea—one not obviously compatible with Marxism—of the nation as an objectively real entity with a legitimate claim to sovereignty. Of course, this begged the question of what counts as a nation. In the Israeli/Palestinian context, left Zionists argued that the Jewish people constituted a nation with a right to self-determination in its ancient homeland, while Palestinian nationalists were only willing to grant rights to the land’s Jewish residents as individuals or as a religious group. Matzpen asserted that while the diasporic Jewish people could not claim national rights in Palestine, the Jewish-Israeli collective which had grown up in the country did count as such a national community. Unlike the Israeli communists, Matzpen analyzed the emergence of this community as the result of colonization, but nevertheless insisted on its unique national traits.

On what basis could this Israeli nation be distinguished from international Jewry? The search for an answer leads Fiedler into a genealogical exploration of the “Hebraist” or “Canaanite” movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, which proposed to sever Israeli Jews from the Jewish world while emphasizing their kinship with the indigenous nationalities of the Middle East. Several Matzpen members had been part of this movement before becoming internationalist socialists, but Fiedler fails to convince that Matzpen’s invocation of Jewish-Israeli self-determination had much to do with the chauvinistic, even antisemitic ideology of Hebraists like the poet Yonatan Ratosh. Matzpen’s concept of nationality could be plausibly analyzed as emerging from an ambivalent but powerful identification with the society in which they had grown up, which they desperately wanted to see transformed but not shattered.

The reasons for Fiedler’s preoccupation with Hebraism, to which he devotes dozens of pages in which Matzpen is hardly mentioned, becomes clear as the book nears its denouement. Following in the footsteps of Dan Diner—a once Matzpen-adjacent German-Jewish historian—Fiedler builds up an argument that casts Matzpen’s political disappointments as resulting from its rejection of the lesson of the Holocaust, viz. the necessity of a Jewish nation-state as a response to Jewish suffering. There are several profound problems with this argument, beginning with its causal non sequitur. As Fiedler well recognizes, callousness towards the Nazis’ victims was prevalent throughout Israeli society until the 1990s, by which time Matzpen had faded from the scene. But as he does not recognize, the construction of a national identity around the trauma of the Holocaust implicitly excludes Mizrahi Israelis, the vast majority of whom did not pass through this crucible (and did not receive the West German reparations which then exacerbated ethnic inequality).

There are yet deeper methodological and political problems with this analytical move. The final chapter of the book, devoted to arguing this thesis, is littered with language attempting to disguise political judgments as statements of fact. Thus, the “existential retreat” of Jews towards Zionism simply “emerged” from the Holocaust, depriving Matzpen of legitimacy (p. 330); the group’s faith in progress “accentuated [its] disregard of the consequences” of the genocide (p. 335); and rejection of Israeli wars as a continuation of the battle against Hitler demonstrates that “Matzpen did not realize that this was also tied to the emergence of Holocaust memories” (p. 351). The most egregious rhetoric appears in Fiedler’s discussion of the legacy of the Trotskyist theorist Abram Leon, murdered by the Nazis and honored by Matzpen as a precursor. Of the New Left’s reception of Leon’s book on the Jewish question, Fiedler writes that it was “untainted by the circumstances of its author’s demise” (p. 356) and “propelled by the dream of a universalist utopia which would eliminate antisemitism while transcending Zionism – as though nothing had changed since the 1930s” (p. 357). As though subsequent history had proven beyond any possible doubt that only a Jewish state could guarantee Jewish safety.

Ultimately, Fiedler’s half-hidden ideological assumptions lead him to misunderstand the motivations of Matzpen’s members. While Matzpenists, like other Israelis, may have been guilty of unjustified contempt for the Holocaust’s survivors, they never ignored it. Carrying on the tradition of the pre-war “revolutionary Yiddishland” documented by Matzpen alumna Sylvia Klingberg, the group’s conclusions from the genocide were internationalist. Reaching across the steep national divides of the Middle East to make common cause with Arab leftists was, to their minds, the best way to serve the interests of the Jewish-Israeli nation as well as those of the other ethnicities of the Middle East. The “fraternity of traitors,” composed by those who had paid steep prices for rejecting nationalism, at once prefigured a possible future and functioned, with some success, as a defense against the worst excesses of the region’s nation-states.

Fiedler’s rhetoric of nationalist inevitability, with its single-minded focus on the question of Jewish statehood, also serves to obscure Matzpen’s long-term impact in other spheres. Any adequate attempt to draw up a historical balance sheet for Matzpen would have to revisit its warnings: against the corruption of Israeli society by colonial occupation; against the theocratic manipulation of religious identities around the region; and against the alliance between Israel, US imperialism, and reactionary Arab regimes. At first glance, none of these warnings seem misguided today; indeed, each of them is spot-on. And as for the question of Jewish statehood, the Israeli ruling class’s indifference to the rise in anti-Jewish violence around the world and its alliance with politicians who court antisemitism, from Orbán to Trump, makes Matzpen’s denial of the equivalence between Jewish statehood and Jewish safety more plausible than ever. Hence, while Zionism’s hegemony within Israel is stronger than ever, among world Jewry the prestige of the Jewish state is in decline. In North America, a rapidly growing Jewish Left, represented by organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now and periodicals like Jewish Currents, rejects this equivalence and seeks, like Matzpen, to make common cause with the oppressed. As Fiedler shows, the Matzpenists loved their country but were willing to travel the world in service of the revolution. It is perhaps fitting, then—and certainly not to their discredit—that for the most part their legacy is today carried forward under other skies.

*Lutz Fiedler, Matzpen: A History of Israeli Dissidence (Trans. Jake Schneider), Edinburgh University Press, 2020, pp. 472.

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