By Moshé Machover, International Socialist Review
Moshé Machover remembers his friend and comrade, Matzpen co-founder Akiva (Aki) Orr (19 June 1931 – 7 February 2013)
Akiva Orr was a revolutionary activist and writer, founding member of the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen), an enchanting raconteur and a unique larger-than-life character.
His parents emigrated with him, their only child, in 1934 from his birthplace, Berlin, to Palestine. In his youth, spent in Tel-Aviv in an apolitical petty-bourgeois milieu, he was a keen swimmer and won the 200m breast-stroke youth championship in 1946 and 1947. In 1948 he was conscripted to the Israeli navy, but was not involved in hostilities during his service. (The navy played a minor role in the 1947–9 war.) Demobilized in 1950, he joined the Israeli merchant navy as a deckhand (eventually rising to become third mate).
A major turning point in his life was the great seamen’s strike of 1951, a seminal episode in Israel’s class struggle. The strike was directed against the Histadrut, the Zionist trade-union federation, which refused to recognize the independent committee elected by an overwhelming majority of the seamen and rejected their demand to run their own union, free from bureaucratic diktat. The Histadrut, whose petty-bureaucrat nominees were crushingly defeated in the election, was also co-owner (together with the Jewish Agency) of the main Israeli shipping company Zim. Aki’s ship, the Tel-Aviv, moored in Haifa harbour, was occupied by its striking crew. In a pitched battle with large forces of police and Histadrut thugs, Aki was threatened by a police officer wielding a drawn handgun. This set him thinking, and he became politicized.
In the autumn of 1953, Aki went up to Jerusalem to study Mathematics and Physics at the Hebrew University, where he and I were classmates as well as members of the Jerusalem branch of the Socialist Left Party, a short-lived split from MAPAM led by the demagogue Moshe Sneh, a blatant Stalinist and (temporarily) covert Zionist. We became close friends and remained in contact when Aki interrupted his studies after his first year and went back to sea for a couple of years. By the time he resumed his studies, the SLP had dissolved and most of its members joined the Israeli CP. So Aki and I were now members of the student cell of the ICP’s Jerusalem branch.
The two great simultaneous international crises in autumn 1956 affected us in contradictory ways. Like many in the international “official” communist movement, we were shocked by the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution, and our trust in the ICP leadership – already undermined earlier that year following Khrushchov’s famous not-so-secret speech – was seriously eroded. At the same time, on the much closer issue of the tripartite (Israeli-French-British) aggression against Egypt, we fully supported the laudable anti-war position of the ICP, which of course echoed the policy of the USSR in this as in everything else.
Some time after that war, Aki and I decided to write a book, based on publicly available material (mainly press reports), vindicating the ICP position and proving that the Suez war must have been planned in collusion between the three aggressors (which was officially denied for quite a long time). We also aimed to show that Israel’s role in that war was a logical culmination of Israeli policy right from its foundation. In the event, most of the work on the book was done by Aki, assisted by his first wife, Lea, and by me. It was published in 1961 under the pen-name “N Israeli” as Shalom, Shalom v’eyn Shalom (Peace, Peace when there is no Peace).1
In the course of writing the book, we became convinced that the ICP’s critique of Zionism was insufficiently radical. It focused on Zionism’s ties with imperialism and Israel’s hostility to the USSR in the Cold War; but – unlike the Palestine CP long before 1948 – it avoided confronting Zionism as a settler-colonizing project. Accordingly, the book represented a shift from the ICP’s stance. Yet, it was not a complete break: for example, we depicted British imperialism as the main culprit and instigator of the 1948 war, and Israel as part-victim. The book was in fact a half-way house between our old ICP orthodoxy and the more thorough analysis of Zionism we were to adopt in Matzpen in the mid-1960s.
Meantime, our criticism of the policies of the USSR and “official” communism grew in response to events. In 1958, following the revolution that overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, we witnessed how the Iraqi CP, which emerged from years of illegality as an almost unrivalled mass party and could have pushed events in a radical left direction, was held back by “advice” of the Soviet Union. Closer home, in 1959 poor immigrants, mostly from North Africa, in the Wadi Salib neighbourhood of downtown Haifa, demonstrated against their exploitation and discrimination. There were clashes with the police. The ICP, instead of supporting the protests, joined other parties in calling for calm. These and similar events persuaded us that the USSR, the “official” communist movement, and its local franchise, the ICP, were not revolutionary forces but concerned primarily with defending the interests of the USSR as a big power. Another object of our criticism was the ICP leadership’s refusal to discuss the party’s history, which was regarded as a great secret. Reading Trotsky’s My Life and History of the Russian Revolution (in excellent Hebrew translation dating from the 1930s) also affected our thinking.
By 1962 we had made contact with two comrades in the Tel-Aviv ICP branch (Oded Pilavsky and Yirmiyahu Kaplan) and several ICP supporters and started regular discussions in a spirit critical of “official” communism. These discussions had to be held in secret, since the CP did not allow unauthorized meetings, especially between members of different branches. We did not have immediate plans for forming a faction or a new organization; but our hand was forced by a leak. We faced immediate expulsion. This is how the Israeli Socialist Organization came into being. The first issue of our monthly journal, Matzpen, appeared in November 1962. Aki contributed to this first issue an article about the lessons of October 1917.
His articles, on diverse topics, continued to appear regularly in Matzpen even after he moved to London in the summer of 1964, intending to pursue postgraduate studies in the general theory of relativity at King’s College. His contributions to Matzpen in Hebrew are being compiled at www.matzpen.org.
In London he devoted much time and energy to educating the left on the true nature of Zionism. He also sought out and befriended several old-timers of the revolutionary socialist movement. Among his many friends were the Austrian-born poet Erich Fried (who later introduced him to the German student leader Rudi Dutschke), the veteran revolutionary Rosa Meyer-Leviné, and – a special friend – the West-Indian Marxist CLR James. At the same time he took great interest in the youth counter-culture of the 1960s and formed many contacts with its representatives.
Following the June 1967 war, Aki intensified his activities in educating the far left about Zionism and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. He was a much sought-after speaker and addressed numerous meetings.
In 1968 he joined the libertarian group Solidarity led by Chris Pallis (aka Maurice Brinton) and distanced himself from Marxism. He was then greatly influenced by Cornelius Castoriades. At the same time he continued his intensive activity as speaker and writer on Zionism and Israel.
In 1990 Aki returned to Israel and continued to speak and write, devoting much energy to propagating a form of anarchism which he called “Autonarchy”, advocating entirely direct decision-making without mediation of any elected delegates or representatives.
Aki died suddenly at his home in the village Tenuvot, Israel. He is survived by his daughter, Sharon, and two grandsons, Max and Theo.
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