These days, the Israeli Communist Party is a marginal force—but the errors made by this party through its 100 year history still provide valuable insight into how Zionism developed historically and what mistakes Jewish and Arab leftists in Palestine have made along the way. In an impressive piece for +972 Mag, Joel Beinin recounts this long history with its many twists and turns. TRNN Board Member Bill Fletcher Jr. sits down with Beinin to discuss the history of the Israeli communist movement and what lessons it may hold amid the current constitutional crisis in Israel.
Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus at Stanford University. His research and writing focus on the social and cultural history and political economy of modern Egypt, Palestine, and Israel, and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.
Studio: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Hey, this is Bill Fletcher, and welcome to The Real News Network. Every so often there’s an interview that I have to do where I am so excited. This is what I want to do and I’m looking for the opportunity, and the time, and that’s what tonight’s interview really is. It’s a look at the left in Palestine in a way that I don’t see very much, and not just the contemporary, but looking historically. Let me explain.
Published in the +972 Magazine and later reposted by Portside on July 30, was one of the most interesting articles I’ve read concerning the left, and what was known as the Palestine Mandate: a territory that was later divided between Israel and Jordan. The article entitled “A Century After Its Founding, the Israeli Communist Party is at a Crossroads” gives a detailed, well-researched look at the evolution of the Israeli Communist movement, its successes and failures, and its legacy. For me, however, it was an article that raised serious questions as to the challenges facing – And the future of – Left-politics in a settler colonial state. Not only in Israel but in other countries including the US, countries that have been rooted in settler colonialism.
Our guest, the author, Joel Beinin, is the Donald C. McLachlan Professor of History and the Professor of Middle East History Emeritus at Stanford University. He’s an author of books and articles on social and cultural history and the political economy of Egypt, Palestine, Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and someone I can call a friend. Joel, thank you very much for joining us.
Joel Beinin: Thank you, Bill, for that very generous introduction.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Well, it had the benefit of being true. Joel, I want to start with, why now? Why that article? This is a lengthy article and I want to tell the readers it’s a lengthy article, and when I saw it first, I said, all right, I have to put it aside. Once I started reading it, frankly, I couldn’t stop.
Joel Beinin: Well, the immediate occasion for writing and publishing it now is that this past July is indeed the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Palestine, which transmogrified into the Communist Party of Israel. So the editors of +972 – And let me put a plugin for that, it’s one of the very best English language sources for following contemporary Israel/Palestine–- I’ve known them for a long time and they invited me to write this article because they knew it was something that I had long been interested in.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: This may sound weird, Joel, but in reading the article… Let me say to the viewers, the article really looks at not the construction of this party but it looks at the development of the revolutionary left in Palestine, the development among Jewish members as well as Arab members, the conflicts, et cetera, which we’ll get into. But one of the things that struck me in reading it is I found myself thinking about German immigrants to the US in the 19th century; Marxist German immigrants and how they, for the most part, did not get settler colonialism and did not get race in the US. And they brought with them this idea of Marxism that, and I say this as a Marxist, but it had no relationship to the situation in the US. And I’m wondering… When you were writing this, it felt to me like many of the immigrants, the Jewish settlers came even as leftists, and they were missing something in a very fundamental way.
Joel Beinin: That’s true. We could say more broadly that mid-19th century, and late-19th century Marxism didn’t get race and empire, and ultimately the Second International fell apart over issues of the empire. Even after World War I, the formative moments of the Palestine Communist Party took place against the background of that split in the Second International, the emergence of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the formation of the Communist International. And people are still not very clued into how we’re going to deal with race and empire and settler colonialism within a revolutionary Marxist framework.
Lenin laid out some bold and radical new ideas but there were lots of struggles about putting flesh on those bones. I’m glad you brought up this comparative dimension. One of the things that dropped out of the article for length is that I had in there a couple of paragraphs comparing what happened in Palestine to what happened in South Africa. In South Africa you also had a white settler immigrant class, a very militant working class that engaged in major mine strikes; the Rand Revolt. And there’s a famous picture of a banner being carried by white mine workers during the Rand Revolt that says “Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa.” Well, that wasn’t going to work too well there and eventually, thanks to the emergence of the African National Congress and the overlapping membership between the African National Congress and the Communist Party of South Africa, white South Africans learned how to deal with this issue. In Palestine that never happened quite that way.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Why? Let’s talk, that’s what I’m interested in. This is really interesting comparing South Africa and Palestine. Why didn’t it happen? Why wasn’t there among the communist settlers, not settlers in general, why wasn’t there that epiphany that something very different was needed?
Joel Beinin: There are two reasons. First, if we’re talking about the settlers, the Jews, very, very few of them came as communists. Most of them came as left Zionists and then they saw things that indicated that, no, there is no such thing as socialist Zionism. If we want to be socialists, we have to abandon Zionism.
But okay, these people’s entire political, cultural, and social formation was within a Zionist, Hebrew-speaking Jewish community. They didn’t know any Arabs. They certainly didn’t know any Arabic except for a tiny, tiny number of them. And so they were completely socially isolated from the vast majority of the population of the country who were Arabs. Up through the end of the British Mandate in 1948, two-thirds of the country was Arab.
Second, the Palestinian Arab national movement had a particularly reactionary social character. There were lots of different strands in the movement but the main body of the movement was led by landlords who were often absentee landlords, who rack-rented peasants who were largely sharecroppers and who had no social program whatsoever.
Now, there were Arab parties that formed with a more progressive social and political platform, a more explicitly anti-imperialist platform, because these Arab large land owner types did not want to confront British imperialism until there was absolutely no choice left for them. So there were other elements that formed in the emerging Palestinian working class, in the emerging Palestinian secular intelligentsia, but they were much weaker relatively speaking than say the ANC, which became the Hegemonic Liberation Movement in South Africa. The progressive forces among Palestinian Arabs never attained that stature.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: So if I understood correctly, sometime in the 1920s, the Communist International basically rattled the cage of the Jewish members of the Palestine party and said you got to do something different. At what point is there an identifiable Arab communist contingent, either within the party or outside of the party?
Joel Beinin: When the party was formed in 1923, there were no Arab members, and the Com Intern said, you have to be a party of the people of the country, and the people of the country are overwhelmingly Arab, so get with it. So they recruited Arabs and sent them to Moscow for political education, a dozen of them in the 1920s, and only about four of them came back to be members of the party.
One of them ended up dying in the Spanish Civil War. Others of them went this way and that way. And consequently, it wasn’t until about the time of that broad Arab Revolt, that’s called the Great Arab Revolution in Palestine of 1936 to 1939, that you had a broad radicalization of Palestinian youth and the very beginnings of the formation of a Palestinian working-class that was very much accelerated by the outbreak of World War II and the establishment of British military and logistical facilities in Palestine.
So during the Arab Revolt, a left point of view emerged mostly, I would say at that point, outside the party. Mostly this was people who rejected the leadership of the large landowners and who began in the fall of 1937 to conduct a guerilla warfare based among the peasantry. That was a fairly powerful movement. It took the British 30,000 soldiers to put it down on the eve of World War II and ultimately the British made some significant concessions to the Palestinian national movement as a result of that uprising. But the uprising was pretty brutally and thoroughly defeated.
Once, there was a broad Palestinian working class, about a hundred thousand urban workers by the middle of World War II. Then, intellectuals within the Communist Party, who had sympathized with that broader social movement during the Arab Revolt, are looking now to these workers and they’re not happy with the party’s approach to the multinational working class. They eventually forced a split in the party that resulted in the formation of the National Liberation League, which was an all-Arab, not communist, but let’s say Marx-Engels political formation that sought to be a united front against fascism type party of the kind that you had in Vietnam and many of the countries that were occupied by Japan, or say also in Greece or Yugoslavia, you had formations like that.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: After World War II, when we started to see this massive influx of Jewish refugees from Europe as a result of the Holocaust, what was the attitude of the party, the Communist Party towards this migration, this influx, and ultimately on the debates that were going on at the United Nations about the future of the Palestine mandate?
Joel Beinin: So this is where it becomes very distinctive and complicated. This factor didn’t occur in any other place where there was a settler colonial society and a communist party somehow emerged. Because there was a humanitarian catastrophe. And the thing that communists all around the world said was, that the Western countries aren’t letting in any of, or very many of, the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. There were about 225,000 of them in displaced persons camps throughout Europe after the war, and very small numbers of them were allowed into any Western countries. Whereas the Jewish community in Palestine said, yeah, I’ll let them come here. But the British had closed the doors as of 1939. That was one of the concessions to the Arab Revolt, to very strictly limit the number of Jewish immigrants into Palestine.
So on a humanitarian basis, communists said, these are among the primary victims of fascism. They have to be allowed to rebuild their lives somehow, somewhere. And yeah, the Western imperialist countries are being piggish by excluding them. But if they can get to Palestine, okay, welcome, and of course from the Palestinian Arab point of view, that’s a disaster. Because they saw that what the Zionists wanted to do was grow the population of the Jewish community in Palestine after 1942. It was very clear what the Zionist goal was: to establish a Jewish state in as much of Palestine as they could.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: And so the party is torn about how to respond to this influx of people.
Joel Beinin: So no Jewish state. But yeah, we have sympathy for the victims of fascism and they should go wherever they want to go, but the countries where they want to go don’t want to let them in. So if they do get let into Palestine, we hope we’ll be able to speak to them and recruit them into the ambiance of the communist movement. This was not a ridiculous idea because the Soviet Union was very popular in Palestine during and after World War II because it was, after all, the Soviet Union that was the main force in the defeat of Nazism.
It was the Battle of Stalingrad that turned the tide of the war in Europe. The Soviets lost 20 million citizens in the fight against fascism. Jews had enormous respect and affection for that. Even people who weren’t particularly communists, progressive Jews who espoused some version of labor Zionism, were still very friendly to the Soviet Union. So it wasn’t ridiculous to assume that you could bring these refugees into some pro-Soviet communist alignment.
On the other hand, if you’re a Palestinian Arab, no, you don’t want anything… The communists for sure had sympathy for the Jews but let the Europeans pay the price for what they did to the Jews, not us. We didn’t do it.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: And this then takes us to one of the episodes that I find very curious in the history of the time. In 1947 when the debates were going on about the future of the Palestine mandate, the Soviet Union ended up supporting a partition. And this created immense confusion within the Arab world, within the Arab left, and specifically the Arab Communist movements. What was the impact of the Palestine party?
Joel Beinin: So at that point in 1947, there were two parties: There was the Communist Party of Palestine which was 100% Jewish, even though it bore the official party name. There was the National Liberation League which wasn’t formally a communist party, but both parties went to the January, and February 1947 London Conference of Communist Parties of the British Empire. The Jewish party said a Jewish national community has been established in Palestine, and as such, it has the right to self-determination. We don’t think that that right should be expressed in the form of an independent state, but there is a Jewish national community here, even though we don’t like the process that brought about its formation.
The Arab Party, the National Liberation League, said yeah, there are Jews in Palestine and we want an independent democratic Palestinian state, and all the Jews who live in Palestine and who are citizens of British Mandate Palestine, they’ll be equal citizens in this new and democratic Palestine that we want. So the two local parties had two different lines and the Soviet Union sympathized more with the line of the Arab party. Why did they change their mind? They changed their mind for two, maybe two and a half reasons, we can say: Reason number one, the overriding reason, they wanted to get the British imperialists out of Palestine. So whatever was going to weaken British imperialism in Palestine, and by extension more broadly in the Middle East, because the British and secondarily the French were still then the dominant European powers in the region, whatever was going to advance that, good, we’re for it.
Second, both the Jewish communists and the left as Jewish Zionists, people from what became the United Workers Party, Mapam, which was rooted in the Hashomer Hatzair Kibbutz movement, sent emissaries to the Soviet block, where sometimes they were talking to their brothers and sisters and cousins and said, look, we are the real communists here, not the Communist Party. The Communist Party doesn’t have any social base in the Jewish community. We have a social base in the Jewish community. We represent 20% of the Jewish community of Palestine. We have kibbutzim, we have cooperatives, we have all sorts of things. And this was true. That was all true. We are the real communists. You support the establishment of the Jewish state, and we are going to have a pro-Soviet Jewish state emerge here. Well, the Soviet Union was not acting out of deep principle, so that sounded like a pretty good deal, and many elements of communist parties in Eastern Europe embraced that idea, especially Czechoslovakia.
Then we have to say that Gromyko, the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, in the speech that he gave to the United Nations when he announced the possibility that the Soviet Union would endorse partition, said, yeah, the Jews deserve something. It’s a very Eurocentric perspective. He is not paying too much attention to what we would call today the “global South” and its understanding of what World War II was about and the aftermath and all of that. The Western imperialist powers let the Nazis butcher the Jews; They didn’t protect them. They aren’t providing a refuge for them after the war. We understand why they might want to have their own state and it would be criminal not to let them have that if that is the only resolution to their problem.
So that’s why the Soviet Union did what it did. And again, from the point of view of the Palestinian Arabs, yeah, we understand the Soviet Union’s motives, but this doesn’t speak to what our needs are here at all. Consequently, the left in Palestine and throughout the Arab world was dealt a pretty heavy blow by the decision of the Soviet Union to support the partition of Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, especially since the Arab state didn’t ever come about.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Right. Now, it’s interesting what you were describing in terms of the conflict represented at the London meeting. Because the two sides that came from Palestine and presented their cases, it felt to me in reading your article, that the theme keeps going to the present. Two very different analyses of the situation, and I’d like you to talk some about how those conflicts were addressed. To what extent was there an attempt to, particularly post-’48, resolve those? And it relates to a question I want to ask you about the current situation, but particularly post-’48, what happened?
Joel Beinin: So I would say that there was never a serious effort to resolve the question. One reason for that is the pro-Soviet dogmatism and the Stalinist cult of personality that prevailed everywhere in the international communist movement. The Soviet Union laid down the line and that was the line. And yeah, internally in the party, there were people who had this interpretation of it and that interpretation of it, but there was a real political function of dogmatism. I talk about this a lot more in my book, Was The Red Flag Flying There? than I do in the article.
Dogmatism served to unite Arabs and Jews around the line that the Soviet Union put down and that preserved party unity. Now, underneath that official unity, there were tensions but there was no way to resolve those tensions because nobody could come and say, wait, this is Palestine, it’s not Czechoslovakia, it’s not Poland. We have a very particular set of social dynamics here, settler colonialism, Zionism, a worldwide Jewish people, which is providing external support for the settler colonialist Jewish community here, a continuing alliance with imperialism, first French imperialism, then American imperialism. There was no way to talk about those things and come up with a creative solution.
And again, compare that with what happened in South Africa where the African National Congress emerged and it became the hegemonic leadership of the Black African community. And then it was clear, well, if we want liberation and we’re white people or colored or Indian or whatever in South Africa, well yeah, we have to find a way to make an alliance with the African National Congress. That didn’t happen in post-1948 Israel until the formation of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality in 1976, which still exists. So that’s a front led by the Communist Party in which non-communist elements have participated more or less in various periods. It’s a very complicated ebb and flow of non-communist forces in and outside the front. But ultimately, the dogmatism of the Communist Party and its anti-democratic political traditions prevailed so that that front has never really appealed to a broad number of Jews. Jews do vote for it but the number is in the tens of thousands out of a population inside Green Line Israel that is the citizens of about 7 million.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: So we could go on for three hours, Joel, on this. There are so many questions that I have. I want to ask two more in the interest of time. One may sound like a strange question and then I want to talk about the present or the future. In light of what you described in this split that existed within the Palestinian Communist movement pre-1948, and then immediately after, why wasn’t there the merger of the Ba’athists among the Arab leftists in response to let’s call it the ambiguity within what becomes the Israeli Communist movement?
Joel Beinin: So the emergence of an Arab nationalist left, the Ba’ath party, which I would argue in historical retrospect turns out not to be an actual left party of any sort whatsoever, but it certainly appeared to be that in the sixties. And Nasser, especially as the Nasser regime radicalized, became closer to the Soviet Union. And remember, we’re in a period historically when proximity to the Soviet Union is part of the definition of what it means to be left, which is its own problem in my view. So when that happened and it was, I would say, objectively the case that Arab nationalism and especially left Arab nationalism led by Nasser and the Ba’ath and the Algerian National Liberation Front – So Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and also then a very important movement in South Yemen that was aligned with them – Those forces were the major challenge to imperialism.
And the Arab elements in the party were, yeah, right, we want to be part of that. And the Jewish elements in the party absolutely rejected it. They rejected it for some bad reasons: racism. They rejected it for some good reasons because Arab nationalism never had an answer to what we were going to do with the Jews there in Israel. They never put forward the program that the African National Congress did. African National Congress put forward a very powerful democratic program, one person, one vote. How do we argue against that? That’s the definition of democracy. But that isn’t what any of the left Arab nationalists put forward.
Arab communists put forward that, but they were, for the most part, with the exception of Iraq and Sudan where the communist parties were quite powerful until they were eliminated, they weren’t a major force in the Arab world. So that line didn’t exist. And then when the forces that became Fatah emerged and began carrying out bombing raids in Israel, civilians were killed and such, and people said, no, well, they don’t distinguish between the army and the civilians. The Jewish people are totally traumatized today by the Holocaust, certainly in the ’60s, there were many survivors, and that was through the Eichmann trial projected everywhere in Israel and globally on the global Jewish community. You would’ve had to have an exceptionally clearheaded and generous Arab leadership to find a way to embrace that in a progressive framework, and it didn’t happen.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: So final question: What does this mean going forward in terms of the presence of a socialist left within Israel and within the occupied territories? What are the conclusions that you’ve come to?
Joel Beinin: So first we need to say, and this isn’t in the article because it’s a very broad argument, that the socialist left everywhere in the world is under enormous pressure and has retreated at the same time that there have been some advances. In the US we could talk about the growth of Democratic Socialists of America and comparable phenomena. Ethnonationalism is a rising force globally, and in Israel, you have people who I would not hesitate for a second to call religio-national fascists in the government of Israel, and they are the directors of government policy. They’re not a fringe element in the government that was let in there because they control a certain number of boats. They were made part of the coalition for that reason. But they’re also ideologically the driving force of government policy.
What can a left do in this situation? So first, the Israelis have cleverly diced up the territory under their control between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean into several different pieces. There’s the West Bank, which is under military occupation, but there are 700,000 Jewish settlers who live there who are equal citizens of the state of Israel, maybe even we could say more than equal citizens because the number of resources that are expended to protect and develop their communities are much greater than in most other Jewish communities inside the Green Line. There’s the Gaza Strip which has its own outrageously barbaric regime of an open-air prison. There’s East Jerusalem where the Arab minority of Jerusalem are residents but not citizens with minor exceptions. And then there are the Palestinians who are citizens of the state of Israel and who comprise 20% of the citizens of Israel.
So navigating that is a problem of enormous complexity. Now you have this astonishing social movement that’s gone on in Israel among Israeli citizens, primarily among the Jewish citizens, but in recent weeks, increasing numbers of Palestinian citizens have joined in the movement and spoken from the platforms of the weekly demonstrations that happen every Saturday night in every significant city and town in Israel. This is a movement that has on many occasions had hundreds of thousands of people in the street and in some cases militant confrontations with the police, shutting down major highways and real street battles, and so on. And the movement hasn’t come up with anything that answers the question, what does it mean to have a democracy with equality for Jews and Arabs.
Among the citizens and addressing the occupation, the main leaders don’t want to do that at all. Now, there is an anti-occupation block within this social movement and it has grown from utterly marginal and insignificant and despised. The leaders of the main body of the movement actually beat them up on a couple of occasions early on. Now that doesn’t happen. Now they’re tolerated. Now they are able to participate in the demonstrations. They don’t get to speak from the main stage in Tel Aviv which has the most conservative orientation of all of the weekly demonstrations. They’re much more open to an anti-occupation and equality for all message in Haifa and Jerusalem and Beersheba than in Tel Aviv and the surrounding suburbs and excerpts.
And among that anti-occupation block, there are an array of forces that have put forward the formula of a state of all its citizens, meaning full equality for Arab and Jewish citizens, and such a state almost by definition would be inclined to deal with the question of the occupation. Two states, one state, federation, confederation, all sorts of ideas are out there. Personally, I’m not very convinced that two states is a viable idea anymore but there are forces among those people in Israel who would still uphold that. So this exists and it has gotten more public space and more energy as a result of being part of this unprecedented mass movement in Israel. Whether that will translate into a political party that wins any significant number of votes in the next election, whenever that will be, totally unclear.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Joel, this was an amazing discussion and I want to really encourage our viewers to read this article. As I mentioned before, it was in +972 Magazine and it was also reposted in Portside. And I feel it’s a must-read and it’s very provocative. You didn’t pull punches and raise questions that people need to be thinking about because the relevance is not only in Israel and Palestine, the occupied territories; It’s relevant to a number of places where there are countries that either were based on settler colonialism or where settler colonialism continues to exist and has in very many cases frustrated the development of left movements.
So Joel Beinin, I really appreciate you joining us on this program. Thank you so much.
Joel Beinin: Thank you, Bill, for having me.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Pleasure. And this is Bill Fletcher with The Real News Network, thanking you. Take care.