IOA Exclusive interview with Moshé Machover – 7 May 2010
Moshé Machover is a mathematician, philosopher, and socialist activist, noted for his writings against Zionism. Born to a Jewish family in Tel Aviv, then part of the British Mandate of Palestine, Machover moved to Britain in 1968 where he became a naturalised citizen. He was a founder of Matzpen, the Israeli Socialist Organization, in 1962. [More in Wikipedia.]
IOA: A background question first. As one of the founders of Matzpen, a small radical anti-Zionist organization founded in the 1960s that served as a catalyst to much of what followed by way of Israeli resistance to the Occupation, would you give us a broad overview of how both the reality of the Occupation and the anti-Occupation movement have changed since 1967?
Moshé Machover: I must begin by questioning the wording of your question.
First, describing Matzpen as a “radical anti-Zionist organization” may sound to some people as though what drove us to found Matzpen in 1962 was our being radically anti-Zionist. Perhaps you meant to say “radical and anti-Zionist”. Yes, we were of course opposed to Zionism, but this was just one of the implications of being radical socialists. We founded Matzpen because we thought there was a need for a radical socialist organization that would be independent – unlike the Stalinist Communist Party, which toed the Soviet line.
Second, there isn’t very much that can be described as “Israeli resistance to the Occupation”. There is some opposition to the post-1967 Occupation. (There is a significant difference, which is lost in Hebrew, because it uses the same word for resistance and opposition.) Most of what can really be described as “resistance” is done by the Palestinians under occupation.
The reality in the post-1967 Occupied Territories (OTs) worsened dramatically after the first intifada (1987–93) and the Oslo Accords (1993). From the 1970s, there was a substantial influx of Palestinian labour into the Israeli economy. This was an exceptional period in the history of Zionist colonization, which had historically aimed at excluding the indigenous Palestinians altogether rather than exploiting their labour-power. It seemed that Israel was beginning to converge to the exploitative model of colonization (then typified by South Africa). During that exceptional period, Palestinian workers could make a living in Israel, but were harshly exploited there. A masterly analysis of that state of affairs was written by Emmanuel Farjoun http://matzpen.org/index.asp?p=english_reserve1979.
At the same time, the growing encroachment of Israeli colonization of the OTs led to increased resentment. The Israeli government – a broad coalition including both the Likkud led by Shamir and the Labour Party led by Peres and Rabin – instituted a policy of harsh repression (“iron fist”) in the OTs.
All these social, economic and political tensions exploded in the first intifada, an unarmed popular resistance. Alarmed by the steadfastness of this grass-root mobilization, and the great material and moral cost Israel incurred in containing it, the Israeli government decided to disengage from direct day-to-day contact with the Palestinians in the OTs and instead control them indirectly.
First of all, they instituted a policy of “closure”, making it almost impossible for workers from the OTs to work inside Israel. (By now their number is down to about one tenth of what it was just before the first intifada.) They have been replaced by migrant workers from all over the world: China, Thailand, Philippines, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa – you name it. The OTs were to be insulated from Israel and converted into a series of enclaves, not so much like the South-African Bantustans (which were a reserve of labour for the settlers), more like the Indian Reservations, where the indigenous people could rot out of sight. So Israel reverted to the traditional Zionist policy of almost totally excluding the Palestinians from employment in its economy.
In order to control the populace in these Reservations, Israel needed to sub-contract this policing task to Palestinian proxies. It found a willing partner in Yassir Arafat, leader of the PLO. Why did he agree to do this? It is a complicated question; perhaps we can talk about it some other time. Suffice it to say that following the Gulf War of 1991 he was in a desperate situation, in which he was ready to agree to almost anything.
This led to the Oslo Accords of 1993. Arafat was allowed to return to Palestine from his exile in Tunisia and establish the so-called Palestinian Authority (PA), whose role from Israel’s point of view was to be responsible for Israel’s security by suppressing any resistance. But the Israeli leadership was divided as to how much rope to give Arafat and his PA. Rabin and Peres, who led the then Labour-dominated government, agreed that the Palestinians should have at least a face-saving semblance of sovereignty. The leaders of the Likkud opposition (which then included both Sharon and Netanyahu), as well as some members of the Labour Party, such as Sharon’s friend Ehud Barak, thought that even this was going too far, and Arafat should only be given enough rope to hang himself. By the way, the Oslo Accords said nothing about a Palestinian state.
All the while, during the Oslo “peace process” Israeli colonization of the OTs, especially the West Bank, proceeded apace in the large spaces between the shrinking Palestinian Reservations.
From there it went from bad to worse to worser. Rabin was assassinated and the next harder-line Israeli Prime Ministers, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon junked even the charade of the Oslo Accords. The separation wall – separating Palestinians from some of their best lands – started to be built. Arafat was isolated and besieged until his death in November 2004 (very likely bumped off by Israel). He was replaced by the totally invertebrate Mahmoud Abbas. In 2005 Sharon pulled out Israel’s troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip (in which there is little scope for Israeli colonization) and converted it to the world’s biggest concentration camp, strangled by Israeli–Egyptian blockade.
The resistance of the Palestinians to the Occupation has gone through several stages, which I can only sketch here. Until the outbreak of the first intifada (end of 1987), there was armed resistance of Palestinian fighters coming from outside the OTs. It took the form of incursions, which were ineffectual and in fact played into the hands of the Israeli authorities because they often resulted in civilian casualties. The first intifada was an enormous change. It was an unarmed mass popular resistance that posed great difficulties to the Occupation regime.
Following the Oslo Accords, the PA under Arafat did what was expected of it by Israel: it put the lid on the popular resistance and policed the populace. A corrupt bureaucratic collaborationist regime allowed a small privileged elite to benefit. But the ordinary people became increasingly frustrated as the Oslo process petered out and the Occupation continued. It was in fact worse than before as far as ordinary workers were concerned, because now there was a great deal of unemployment due to the Israeli closure policy. The frustration erupted in September 2000 in the second intifada, sparked off by a deliberate provocation of Sharon, with the kind permission of his friend Prime Minister Ehud Barak. This phase of resistance was again largely armed, but conducted from inside the OTs rather than from outside. This time militant Islamic organizations (mainly Hamas) took the lead. This achieved very little.
At present there is increasing mobilization for non-violent resistance, which can draw on a growing international solidarity, and support of volunteers from across the world, including Israel.
The Israeli opposition to the Occupation is not a single movement but consists of two components. The broader and softer component, led by Peace Now, consists almost entirely of Hebrews (Israeli Jews) who are relatively moderate Zionists. It has no real criticism of pre-1967 Israel, but would like to put an end to the post-1967 Occupation because of its corrosive and corrupting effect on Israeli society. It is committed to the so-called ‘two-state solution’, and actually supports the Israeli government when its actions appear to be directed towards that goal. In this it allows itself to be easily misled, because it is quite willing to take the appearance for reality. It supported enthusiastically the Oslo Process, depicting it as a genuine drive towards ending the Occupation. In 2004–5 it supported Sharon’s ploy of “disengaging” from the Gaza Strip, taking it to be a genuine end of the Israeli occupation of that part of the OTs. This soft component of the anti-Occupation movement greatly declined following the Camp David Summit (July 2000). At that meeting, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak – who had opposed the Oslo Accords – wrong-footed Arafat by dressing up as a “generous offer” an ultimatum whose conditions were too dire even for the pliant Arafat. Like most of the Western press, the soft anti-Occupation movement in Israel was hoodwinked by Barak’s ploy, and concluded that it is not Israel but the Palestinians who constitute an obstacle to settling the conflict. This movement then went into disarray and decline.
The more radical component of the Israeli opposition to the Occupation is made up of a whole lot of small but active groups of Israelis of both nationalities. These groups are interlinked, and their memberships often overlap. They are basically one-issue groups, each one concentrating on action against a particular evil, a specific aspect of the Occupation. They are too many to list here, and it would be invidious to mention just a few of them. This radical component of the movement is growing, and the Israeli extremists, including most of the present government, are getting worried about this effective opposition – especially because of its links with non-violent resistance in the OTs and with solidarity organizations abroad. Currently, harsh repressive measures are being applied to these groups, and worse ones are threatened.
IOA: As a Marxist in a world dominated by countries that have increasingly distanced themselves not only from socialist ideas but even elementary concepts of social democracy, how do you see Marxist revolutionary ideology surviving and where might it be relatively more attractive or applicable?
MM: Again, I must comment on the wording of your question.
I feel a bit ambivalent about being described as a “Marxist”, because this term is often used to denote some kind of orthodoxy. I don’t subscribe to every opinion expressed by Karl Marx (neither did he, by the way, for he changed his mind on various issues; and he famously said that he was not a Marxist…). For example, I co-authored (with Emmanuel Farjoun) a book that points out a central error in Marx’s economic theory, and shows how this can be corrected. But if being Marxist means that I have been profoundly influenced by Marx’s ideas, his view of history and his analysis of the working of the capitalist mode of production – then, OK, I am a Marxist in this sense.
You referred to something you called “Marxist revolutionary ideology”. This is – unintentionally, I’m sure – dissing Marx. He always used the term “ideology” in a pejorative sense:
“Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces”. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxism.)
By the way, this is somewhat similar to the way Freud described the working of the human mind; the significant difference is that for Marx the hidden “real motive forces” behind the false consciousness are not individual but social. I know that many people (including self-styled Marxists) use “ideology” for any system of ideas (and sometimes for what is barely a single idea); but I think this is unfortunate, because we do need a special word for socially generated false consciousness.
But to answer your question in its intended meaning: Marx’s ideas, especially his analysis of the capitalist mode of production, have an extraordinary vitality; it is much too soon to declare them dead and buried. For a while they have been in abeyance, for two reasons. First, there were regimes that embezzled the label “Marxism” but in fact practised a grotesque perversion of what Marx stood for. When those regimes imploded, the ideologues of capital misrepresented it as a refutation of Das Kapital. This worked for a while, but it shows signs of wearing off, not only due to the passage of time, but mostly as a result of the global crisis. Because the second reason for the abeyance of Marx’s ideas was that capitalism – or as Marx would put it, more precisely, the capitalist mode of production (he never used the term “capitalism,” as far as I know) – seemed for a long while to be not only stable but in good health. So the ideologues declared that history had come to an end, by which they meant that the existing system would go on forever. This seemed almost convincing: if it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?
But now we have witnessed a colossal crisis, which was triggered off by the bursting of the financial bubble but is evidently a manifestation of a profound malfunction of the entire global capitalist system. It is broke; and it can’t really be fixed. Besides, there is a growing awareness that this system is in any case not sustainable in the long run for ecological reasons. It is a sorcerer’s apprentice.
So Marx is currently back in vogue. Since we are still living in a capitalist world, this is naturally first reflected in sales figures. On 20 October 2008, the London Times reported: “In Germany Das Kapital, which for the past decade has been used mainly as a doorstop, is flying off the shelves”. Of course, as is normal in great transitions, the change occurs at first in the heads of artists and intellectuals, especially young ones, who are keen on novelty, including retro novelty. Among them red is getting back in fashion, this time with a green fringe. A groundswell is yet to come. Of course, it is by no means certain, and the form it may take is hard to predict.
You ask where Marx’s ideas might be more attractive or applicable. Well, it is very hard to predict where (and whether) a groundswell will start. Such things are triggered off by local and seemingly accidental factors. But we live in a globalized capitalist world – as Marx clearly predicted, by the way – so, wherever it starts, it will spread across the world. And as for applicability: by their nature Marx’s ideas are applicable globally or not at all.
IOA: Over the years, you’ve covered extensively the question of One-State vs. Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While critics of the One-State solution often say that it is “unrealistic,” a Two-State solution with a Palestinian state that is truly independent, viable, and closely follows the 1967 borders is hardly more realistic. How do you bridge the gap between the ideals inherent in your vision for a future Israel-Palestine on the one hand, and today’s stark reality of the Occupation on the other? And, just how might we get from here to there?
MM: Yes, I have repeatedly warned against the illusion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved within the “box” of so-called “historical Palestine”, whether as a single state or divided into two. A resolution will only become possible following far-reaching transformation of the entire region. I have recently explained this position (which was first developed by Matzpen in the 1960s, well before the 1967 war) in an article “Resolution of The Israeli–Palestinian conflict: A socialist viewpoint”.
I don’t have a “vision for a future Israel–Palestine” as such. This would be thinking inside that very box, against which we in Matzpen have been arguing. We envisage a future progressive regional federation, which will include both a de-Zionized Israeli component and a Palestinian-Arab component. This is indeed a project of long duration. But, I repeat, it is an illusion to expect the conflict to be resolved without major changes in the regional balance of power.
The answer to the question as to how “we get from here to there” is twofold. First, we have to organize and work patiently towards the long-term aim. Second, there is much to do in the meantime in mobilizing forces in the OTs, in Israel, in the region and worldwide in a defensive struggle against the current effects of Zionist colonization, including the danger of another major wave of ethnic cleansing. This defensive resistance and opposition struggle, and campaigns of solidarity with it, are of extreme importance and great urgency. I have expanded on this theme in a talk at a conference on The Left in Palestine / The Palestinian Left held in February 2010: “Israeli Socialism and anti-Zionism: Historical Tasks and Balance Sheet“.
IOA: Do you believe that the struggle against the Occupation has changed since Israel’s attack on Gaza, December 2008 – January 2009? If so, how different is the post-Gaza reality from an anti-Occupation struggle standpoint?
MM: There has been a very noticeable change in the climate of opinion at three levels. First, in world public opinion, among ordinary people in many countries. I can feel it here in Britain and I hear reports about similar shifts in public opinion in several other countries. A survey conducted recently in 28 countries on 29,000 respondents reveals that only Iran, Pakistan and North Korea have more negative perception than Israel http://tinyurl.com/36bggza. Israel is well on its way to being regarded a pariah state in world public opinion.
Second, there is a shift in the attitude of some governments that were formerly very friendly to Israel. The clearest case is Turkey.
But perhaps the most significant shift is among Jews outside Israel. In this respect the Goldstone Report may be a milestone. Not all Jews are as yet ready to come out publicly and criticize Israel; but many who don’t do so are nevertheless tacitly withdrawing their support. There is a growing feeling among Jews that being identified too closely with Israel is both morally wrong and against their own best interest. This shift is important because it encourages opposition among non-Jews, who have been intimidated by the Zionist propaganda that mendaciously brands opposition to Israel as “anti-Semitic”.
All this is having an effect on the struggle in the OTs, Israel and elsewhere. The campaign for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel is gaining momentum at a pace that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. This applies even in the US, where formerly very few voices had been raised against Israel’s misdeeds. The recent majority resolution of the students’ senate of Berkeley University (which was blocked by an undemocratic veto of the president of that body) is just one instance.
Israel has reacted by intensifying repression in the OTs, viciously and violently targeting persons engaged in non-violent resistance. Inside Israel too, there is growing repression against oppositional organizations and individuals.
Finally, there is a desperate Israeli PR campaign worldwide, trying to de-legitimize the growing opposition and revulsion. But as far as I can see this is not having much effect. It may actually backfire.
IOA: What are the appropriate strategies and tactics to fight the Occupation, and struggle for a just future for Palestinians and Israelis? How do we keep the faith for a better future despite the many obstacles? Would you share with us your experience from the UK and other places where you are active?
MM: It would be presumptuous of me to advise the Palestinians inside the OTs how exactly to conduct their struggle. But obviously it would be wise to draw lessons from past experience as to which methods of struggle have been most effective.
The most important task for us, expatriate Israeli dissidents, is educational – in the broad sense of the word. When I first came to the UK, not only general public opinion, but even much of the radical left, was very sympathetic to Israel. We had a tremendous job educating the left on the true nature of Zionism as a colonizing project and Israel as an expansionist settler state. This story is told in the film Matzpen. Our analysis was in great demand; we were invited to speak at many meetings.
Following the decline of the left in the late 1970s, interest in our message subsided. But recently it has revived. Nowadays we can use the Internet as a great tool of education and information. You in the IOA are part of this. In my opinion we are doing fine, but we must be patient because it is a very long-term project.
Finally, as for the struggle inside Israel: I would not presume to advise the militants in the various one-issue groups (to which I referred in my answer to a previous question), each of whom is devoted to action against a particular evil, a specific aspect of the Occupation. In fact, I think that on the whole they are doing a great job in the current struggle.
But what is lacking is a non-sectarian radical socialist organization dedicated to the long-term strategy of patiently building towards the future transformation of Israel as part of the entire region. In my recent talk, “Israeli Socialism and anti-Zionism: Historical Tasks and Balance Sheet,” I explained why in my opinion such an organization will be called upon to play a crucial role in the future of Israel and the region, and the resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Building it is a vital task.
IOA: Thank you, Moshé.
MM: It’s a pleasure.
Moshé Machover is an Israeli socialist anti-Zionist activist and co-founder of the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen). He is currently living in London, England. He is emeritus professor of philosophy, King’s College, London University. His most recent book is Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution.
All IOA commentaries by Moshé Machover