Sixty years after co-founding the radical leftist group Matzpen, Moshé Machover reflects on the organization’s enduring legacy, the internal splits that led to its demise, and its lessons for today’s anti-Zionist left.
Moshé Machover is anxious to set the record straight. “There’s been a lot of misrepresentation about Matzpen — some of it deliberate,” he tells me sternly before our interview has even begun.
Known to his friends as Moshik, Machover is the last living member of a quartet of activists that founded the radical Israeli leftist group Matzpen (“Compass”) — originally called The Israeli Socialist Organization — 60 years ago. Less comfortable talking about himself, Machover is on much safer ground discussing intricate details of Marxist political economy or niche episodes in international communist history. Naturally, when it comes to Matzpen’s founding, development, and eventual breakup in the wake of debilitating splits in the 1970s, he is an encyclopedic source of knowledge. And while the organization has been the subject of renewed academic interest in recent years, Machover is far from content with these depictions.
Founded in 1962 and active until the early ‘80s, Matzpen’s legacy looms much larger than its membership numbers, which never surpassed a few dozen, would suggest. The reason for this is no mystery: it was the first organization active in Jewish-Israeli society, born after the state’s establishment in 1948, to unequivocally denounce Zionism as colonialism — both at home and abroad. Publishing in-depth analyses of political developments in the Middle East while forming links with Palestinian and other Arab leftists across the region and beyond, Matzpen was viewed by Israel’s security establishment, and much of Israeli society, as an internal threat.
To say the organization was ahead of its time would be an understatement. Only recently have prominent Israeli leftist and anti-occupation groups, following in the footsteps of Palestinian thinkers and organizations, started to describe Israel’s rule over Palestinians as “apartheid,” and begun confronting the legacies of the Nakba. Yet here was a group of Jews and Palestinians in Israel who recognized more than half a century ago that the “conflict” was a settler-colonial one, and wrote extensively about how to overthrow the regime.
In doing so, Matzpen laid the foundations for what has been described as Israel’s “independent left” — a political current separate from the hegemonic Zionist left on one hand, and from the Israeli Communist Party (ICP), which expelled Machover and three other comrades who would go on to found Matzpen, on the other. The group took up its place within the global New Left, promoting an internationalist socialist vision that preached self-determination for all peoples; it is from here that Matzpen derived its position on Palestine, and on the specific nature of Zionist colonialism.
The fact that Matzpen’s analysis crystallized before the onset of the Israeli occupation of 1967 also sets it apart from the long line of anti-occupation protest groups that have emerged over the subsequent five and a half decades. In many ways, Machover argues, Matzpen’s earlier publications even predicted the expansionist war. “Very often I feel like Cassandra,” he says, referring to the priestess from Greek mythology. “We make correct prophecies, but very few people believe us.”
A persistent dissident
Born in Tel Aviv in 1936, Machover received his earliest political education as a teenager in Hashomer Hatzair, the youth movement of the Zionist-left Mapam party (a precursor of today’s Meretz). The movement’s ideology was “a sort of amalgam of Zionism and Marxism,” and it wasn’t long before he and a couple of friends began to sense a contradiction between the two.
“They were teaching us about class struggle, but then telling us to go and found or join a kibbutz,” Machover recalls. “What does that have to do with socialism? It made sense as a Zionist mission, but if you are thinking about socialist revolution, then the place to do it is among the working class, not to go and establish a kibbutz.”
When Machover and his friends tried to voice this perspective in meetings, they were promptly shut down — and then expelled. “We were not allowed to challenge the ideology of the movement,” he explains. “There was a ban on [the remaining members] having anything to do with us. The three of us were ostracized.”
For a few years thereafter, Machover was “at a loose end,” trying out a few other youth movements but struggling to find a political home. Eventually, after beginning his undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he joined the Communist Party. By the early 1960s, however, Machover was part of a small cadre that was starting to express discontent about the party’s Stalinism. “We didn’t plan to found a new group so early,” he says. But after the party leadership discovered that members from different branches and other activists were holding meetings in secret, they were promptly kicked out.
Thus, in late 1962, Matzpen was born. The four activists who initiated its formation — Akiva Orr, Oded Pilavsky, Yirmiyahu Kaplan, and Machover — wanted the organization to be non-sectarian, allowing for more open discussion than the disciplinarian ICP.
It was also, Machover stresses, an organization rooted in the working class, and he rejects the depiction of Matzpen as a bunch of middle-class Ashkenazi intellectuals. Among the group’s prominent early members were Mizrahi activists, including Haim Hanegbi, the grandson of the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Hebron. There were also Palestinian activists — several of whom joined after splitting from the ICP’s Haifa branch in 1963 — including Jabra Nicola, who Machover mentions several times throughout our conversation as a major influence on the rest of the group’s thinking.
Despite its reputation today, the first edition (Nov. 1962) of the monthly Matzpen journal — by whose name the group soon came to be known — contained only one article relating to the Palestinian struggle, which outlined why there will be no peace without granting Palestinian refugees the right of return. Other articles in the edition dealt with problems in the ICP, the need to raise the minimum wage, and the struggle to transform the Histadrut labor federation (an organ of the Zionist labor movement, dominated by the Mapai government of the time) into an independent union that divorces workers’ rights from the interests of Zionism and the state.
There was, Machover explains, strategic value in trying to unite disparate groupings and struggles into one coherent movement: “We felt that the radical left was so small that it couldn’t afford to split along narrow doctrinal lines.” But a decade later, Matzpen would, in fact, be beset by splits — what Machover calls “the disease of the radical left” — which would weaken and ultimately incapacitate the organization.
‘A nation of murderers and murder victims’
Matzpen is perhaps best known for a short advertisement that appeared in the liberal Haaretz newspaper in September 1967, calling on Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied just three months earlier. It was not, strictly speaking, a Matzpen publication; not all of the advertisement’s 12 relatively unknown signatories were members, but all were at least “sympathizers,” according to Machover. The text has nonetheless become a major part of the organization’s legacy.
“Our right to defend ourselves from extermination does not give us the right to oppress others,” it read. “Occupation leads to foreign rule. Foreign rule leads to resistance. Resistance leads to repression. Repression leads to terror and counter-terror. The victims of terror are mostly innocent people. Holding on to the occupied territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims. We must leave the occupied territories immediately.”
A copy of this advertisement hangs on the wall of Machover’s study in his London home, and he takes credit for the last-minute addition of two words: “I said [to the principal author, Shimon Tzabar] we had to add ‘and counter-terror,’ because terror will come from Israel. And Shimon agreed immediately.” To this day, Machover continues, “this advertisement is periodically mentioned as an instance of prophecy coming true. People refer to this and say, ‘Wow, they understood immediately.’ But you didn’t need to be a prophet. We thought it was plain political common sense.”
The advertisement raised Matzpen’s profile considerably, generating a sudden spike in media coverage that “made us look many times bigger than we were,” says Machover. But given that most of the country was flooded with nationalist euphoria in the wake of the war — in which Israel tripled the land under its control after seizing the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula — the coverage generated a significant backlash against the group. “There was a pandemonium of hate,” he continues. “I can’t describe it any differently. It was a hate campaign whipped up by the press.”
Inevitably, this campaign of incitement spilled beyond the pages of newspapers, with prominent members of the group soon starting to receive death threats by telephone. Machover himself received several such calls, some of which were answered by his young children. “I wasn’t so personally affected, but my wife, I think, was suffering more,” he says.
For Machover, however, the advert was not the most important thing Matzpen wrote that year, nor the clearest articulation of their positions. That can be found in an article published in May 1967, less than a month before the war, titled “The Palestine Problem and the Israeli-Arab Dispute.”
The culmination of years of theorizing, the article called for the “de-Zionization” of Israel by repealing the Law of Return (which allows any Jew in the world to immigrate and be naturalized as an Israeli citizen) and all other laws that discriminate against non-Jews, as well as by the granting of the right of return to Palestinian refugees.
The article also distinguished Zionism from other cases of settler colonialism prevalent at the time, such as in South Africa and Algeria, by pointing to its reliance on settler labor. This, it is argued, led to the emergence of a new “Hebrew” nation between the river and the sea that was distinct not only from the indigenous Palestinians, but also from its origins in the Jewish diaspora. The solution to the problem, therefore, must “not only redress the wrong done to the Palestinian Arabs, but also ensure the national future of the Hebrew masses,” which would be achieved through integrating both nations into a socialist Middle Eastern union.
Of course, much has changed in Israel-Palestine and the wider world since the article was written, and Machover is quick to point out that parts of it are “grossly outdated” — including the portrayal of Israel as weak and economically dependent on the United States. The idea of a socialist union spanning the region also sounds more fantastical today than it did at a time when socialism was still a powerful force in world politics. And yet, “the analysis of the nature of the conflict that we arrived at in the 1960s is basically still valid today,” he argues, “with a few modifications for changes of circumstance.”
And because of Matzpen’s understanding that colonialism was the crux of the conflict, the 1967 war hardly took them by surprise. “Colonization is like a gas,” says Machover, “it occupies whatever space is available. It was like this in America, with Manifest Destiny, and it is like this with Zionist colonization. So long as it doesn’t come up against an immovable barrier, it will continue to expand.”
Plagued by divisions
In 1968, Machover left the country to take up a teaching job at the University of London. He didn’t intend to be there for very long: his plan was to stay for a couple of years, and return when Israel gave back the occupied territories. He laughs at his naïveté today, but points out that many people at the time were fully expecting Israel to withdraw from the territories in the face of international pressure — just as it had done after the Suez War in 1956 under U.S. orders. But the international picture had changed: Israel was no longer “a junior partner of French imperialism,” as Machover puts it, but a strategic asset of the United States.
“From that point on, I was not ‘in the scene’ itself,” he says. “But I and other comrades like me — including [Matzpen co-founder] Akiva Orr, who was also in London, and our co-thinkers in Germany, France, and the U.S. — made it our mission to educate the left on Israel-Palestine. I was invited to speak at universities, and sometimes branches of the [British] Labour Party, to give my analysis of the situation.”
In a 2003 documentary film about Matzpen, Orr relates that the organization received so many speaking invitations in London during the 1970s that members would often have to divide them up between themselves, sometimes taking on several a day. Zionist students who tried to argue with them were so confounded with their level of knowledge and analysis that their only course of action was to ask irrelevant questions in order to waste time and “minimize the damage.”
“We invested a lot of work into this,” Machover tells me. “There was a lot of sympathy for Zionism at that time, even among the left. And to some extent I think we can say that we were successful in influencing left-wing public opinion in Europe in the spirit of Matzpen’s ideas, contributing to the understanding of Zionism as a colonizing ideology and project.”
The Matzpen activists in Europe were also busy writing articles under the banner of the Israeli Revolutionary Action Committee Abroad (ISRACA). Another journal, Khamsin, published articles by Matzpen activists and Marxists from across the Middle East well into the 1980s. “Being present in London and Paris, we had the advantage of being able to form free contact with co-thinkers from the Arab world,” Machover notes. And given Matzpen’s insistence on resolving the Palestine question through a transnational, socialist approach, “we vitally needed to form contacts and dialogue with radical leftist forces regionally.”
By the 1970s, however, Matzpen in Israel was already plagued by divisions. The organization had, since its establishment, attempted to balance the struggle against capitalism with the struggle against colonialism, with the founders asserting that confronting either one of these in isolation would be futile. But in 1970, two small factions broke away in opposite directions to focus on each of those struggles individually.
The first, known as Avantguard (or Workers’ Alliance), chose to emphasize the capitalist nature of Israel; the second, known as Ma’avak (or Revolutionary Communist Alliance), “more or less wanted Matzpen to be a support group for the Palestinian struggle,” says Machover. “Those of us who remained were more critical of the PLO, for example. Certainly we supported the Palestinian struggle, but we were critical of nationalist ideology.” Ma’avak petered out not long after, and its leader, Ilan Halevi, later officially joined the PLO.
These two splits, which Machover describes as “healthy,” were small enough that the organization could continue functioning as before. But two years later, a far more fateful split occurred over a historical debate that was totally irrelevant to the organization’s core struggle in Israel: the suppression of the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion in 1921, under the orders of the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, which Matzpen’s splinter group insisted on justifying.
Machover calls this “an absurd issue over which to split an Israeli group,” leading him to suspect that the breakaway faction — who called themselves Matzpen Marxists (or the Revolutionary Communist League) — may have been receiving instruction from the Trotskyist Fourth International. The split created two groups that were “too small to be viable as real political organizations,” leading to the eventual demise of both.
By the 1980s, Matzpen’s original membership had filtered into new forums, including the short-lived Progressive List for Peace which ran for the Knesset twice. Matzpen veterans were also instrumental in the formation of some of Israel’s most important labor rights organizations; some of them can still be found in groups like Kav LaOved (Workers’ Hotline) and Koach L’Ovdim (Power to the Workers). The latter, says Machover, “is the fulfillment of what Matzpen demanded from the very first [journal] issue: a trade union independent of the Zionist project.”
Matzpen members also became involved in various initiatives in support of the Palestinian struggle. The Alternative Information Center, a coalition of Palestinians and Israelis producing grassroots political news and analysis, was established by members of the Trotskyist splinter group — some of whom still run the organization to this day from Bethlehem. Others were active in the Committee for Solidarity with Birzeit University, and others still in the solidarity organization for Israeli military objectors, Yesh Gvul.
More than five decades after leaving the country, Machover still regards it as his political duty to educate others on Israel-Palestine through the analytical lens that Matzpen developed all those years ago. And for that reason, he doesn’t shy away from offering a critique of the anti-Zionist left of today.
While he welcomes the growing understanding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a colonial struggle between settlers and indigenous people, he warns against concluding that a one-state solution is the way to resolve it. “Radical critics of Zionist colonization tend to be seduced by one state with equal rights,” he suggests. “But they miss the subtlety of the element of our analysis that focused on agency: they cannot point to who is going to do it.”
In South Africa, Machover explains, “apartheid fell not because of the international boycott, although it helped, but because of military defeat in southwest Africa and class struggle by the mainly Black working class, which was indispensable to the South African economy and therefore had enormous leverage. There is nothing analogous to this in Israel-Palestine, because the main victims of colonization don’t have the same leverage.”
The pursuit of “Hebrew labor,” a policy of the early Zionists that was central to the colonization of Palestine, sought to actively dispossess Palestinians of their economic relevance, and thus prevented a situation of Zionist dependency. The influx of tens of thousands of Palestinians into the Israeli labor market after the 1967 occupation certainly increased the reliance, but the establishment of a permit regime after the First Intifada — which was further tightened with the eruption of the Second Intifada — stopped this in its tracks.
Given this reality, he continues, “the only way the Zionist regime can be overthrown, i.e. de-Zionization, is with the participation, or at least the consent, of the Israeli masses — especially the working class. We understood already in 1967 that this cannot happen just within the Israel-Palestine box, and cannot happen within a capitalist framework. There is no reason why the Hebrew working class would want to exchange the Zionist regime for a democratic state that is capitalist, because it would entail a loss of privilege: from an exploited class that is part of the privileged nation, to an exploited class that is not part of a privileged nation. What’s the gain in this?”
Socialism, Machover goes on, cannot succeed within a single country, and certainly not one the size of Israel-Palestine. That is why, he argues, the solution must involve a regional socialist federation. In such a scenario, the Israeli working class would gain a position “as the ruling class of a non-privileged nation.”
“I’m not saying it’s likely, and I’m certainly not saying it will happen tomorrow. I think that we are much more likely to see another Nakba before getting to a situation where resolution of the conflict is possible,” he warns. “But this is at least a logical possibility. It depends on Arab socialist activists being far-sighted enough to understand that they need the Israeli working class.”
Sixty years after Matzpen’s founding, and half a century after its fatal split, Machover certainly hasn’t given up hope that this future could indeed come to fruition one day — even if it won’t be in his lifetime. “Experience has taught us not to be too optimistic in the short and medium term. But in the long run,” he smiles knowingly, “I’m very optimistic.”