Musa Budeiri: Always with the oppressed – a farewell to Akiva Orr 1931-2013, humanist, radical, heretic

Matzpen co-founder Akiva Orr - 1931-2013

Matzpen co-founder Akiva Orr – 1931-2013

By Musa Budeiri, Jadaliyya – 7 May 2013

In February 2013 I participated with a small group of Israelis and Arabs in bidding farewell to Akiva Orr. I could not help recalling our first meeting nearly forty five-years earlier and my mind went back to the genealogy of individuals and events stretched across geography and time that had originally led me to his door in London, soon after my return from my first visit to Israel….and to Palestine.

Though many of them never knew each other directly, in my mind, the thread linking them together (as well as my meeting with Akiva Orr) was a shared stance within radical politics. It was one based on a stubborn attachment to a host of universal values and solidarities that always transcend nationalism and religion and never succumbed to the many barriers used by the rich and powerful to protect their wealth and privilege from the multitudes of humanity.

In 2005, I drove my twenty-year old son, member of an anarchist group in London to a small housing community in the neighborhood of Netanya. The intended object of our trip Akiva Orr, himself preferred to give directions to this housing community by citing its proximity to the Arab village of Qalansawa. It was a desolate piece of urban development, ugly, functional, and bleak. He lived on his own, surrounded by a large number of cats, friendly and otherwise.

For some years now Aki, as he was commonly known, had been applying his thoughts to anarchism. He produced a couple of publications, and established a website to propagate his views. I on the other hand have remained mired in class and the potential of class struggle. This Aki, I felt, would posses more common ground with my son and would be closer to his cultural and intellectual universe.

In pre-1948 Palestine a small communist party united Arab and Jewish militants in its ranks. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution’s promise of impending universal emancipation, these militants believed that a new dawn was approaching. Their task was to hasten and prepare for this transformation that would do away with poverty, injustice, and oppression of all kinds. Among this small group was a young Arab from Jaffa, Jabra Nicola who by the age of thirty in 1935 had already produced a number of publications on trade union organization, the life of Lenin, Jewish society in Palestine, and other topics.

Nicola shared a zeal and an outlook, a sense of internationalism, which we find also in the writings of Salim Khayatta from Tripoli, Lebanon. Both Khayatta and another figure, Mukhlis Amer from Doura-Hebron, Palestine, have not received their due as pioneers of Arab Marxist thought.  Early on, Nicola exhibited an interest in the internal workings of the new Soviet society and the struggles that engulfed its first decade. He came to recognize Leon Trotsky’s critique of the doctrine of “Socialism in One Country” as the correct Bolshevik position. Nicola associated with a Trotskyite Lawyer in Jaffa/Tel Aviv, Mordechai Stein, who in the 1930s produced for a short time a paper entitled Al Nour (Haor) in both Hebrew and Arabic. My father was loosely associated with the communist movement in Palestine at the time and had a passing acquaintance with Nicola, while not sharing his political “deviance.”  In 1948 Nicola was in Haifa and like other Arabs who managed to stay in those areas of Palestine conquered by the Hagana, lost contact with a number of old friends and acquaintances. He continued his political activity in the newly established Israeli Communist Party, an amalgam of those members of Usbat al Taharrur al Watani (The National Liberation League) who remained in Palestine, and Jewish communists who had established themselves as an Israeli Communist Party. In the early 1960s when Akiva Orr, Moshé Machover and a couple of their communist comrades formed Matzpen, as a radical Marxist organization critical of Stalinism and the Soviet Union, Nicola joined its ranks.

While growing up a stone’s throw away from the no man’s land, which separated Jordanian controlled Jerusalem from Israeli controlled Jerusalem in the 1950s, I remained blissfully ignorant of Israel and Jews. Attending a British missionary school in Jerusalem I was more familiar with the War of the Roses, the Armada, Cromwell, Luther, Calvin, Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Wellington, Nelson. I have no memory of Palestine, or contemporary Arab history in the school curricula. Yet as a child, I did listen compulsively to the broadcasts of Sawt al Arab and to Ahmad Said, (obeying my parents instructions to keep the volume low so that that the Jordanian sentry stationed at the Turkish consulate opposite would not hear!)

Beginning in 1962 when I left Jerusalem for the United Kingdom I became a regular reader of the Daily Worker, the British Communist Party’s newspaper. In the period leading up to the June war of 1967 I had become acquainted with a world a million miles removed from my old school curricula: the Bolshevik revolution, Trotsky, Zetkin, Kollantai, Makhno, Luxembourg & Liebknicht, Mao, Giap, Che, La Pasionaria, Auschwitz, the Huks, Dien Bien Phu, the Cuban Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, Sharpville, the Little Red Book, Issac Deutscher’s historical writings, and much more. But I learned little about the Arab world, and nothing about Palestine…or Israel.

In June 1967 the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan reunited Palestine… perhaps reinvented it, and at least part of the Palestine people. Immediately on the conclusion of hostilities, Nicola, a resident of Haifa, travelled to Jerusalem seeking old friends and acquaintances. Meeting with my father he introduced him to two young comrades, Moshé Machover, a professor of Mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Khalil To’meh from the village of al Rameh in the Galilee, a law student at the same university.

In the immediate aftermath of the June 1967 war my political education took a sharp turn. I met Wamid Omar Nadhmi, a graduate student from Baghdad who was preparing his doctoral thesis on the 1920 revolt (Thawrat tel a’far) the first Arab uprising against the “new world order” created by Anglo-French power. Wamid was a former Baathist turned Nasserite with a soft spot for national Marxists, as he liked to call them, prominent among whom were Yassin al Hafez and Ilyas Murqos. He became my gateway to the Arab world. Akiva Orr who I met more or less at the same time played an equally pivotal role. He was my introduction to Israel, and to a radical left which drew its inspiration from what were to me, various unrecognizable sources of Marxism. This felt rather “heretical” even sinful, which only served to enhance the pleasure of “consuming” what to my mind were “illicit” texts.

Earlier that year, I had flown from London to what used to be called Lod airport…now as a “Jordanian tourist.” Conversing with my father in Jerusalem I was not surprised to discover that he had remained loyal to his previous world view with the Soviet Union in center place. Dismissing my “heretical” views he proceeded to put me in touch with people he deemed had “similar” thinking. I soon found myself in the company of two young Israelis, with whom I found I had more than ample common ground. They were the first Israelis I met. Knowing that I will soon be returning to the United Kingdom, they gave me the contact details of a friend who lived in London.

When I first knocked on Aki’s door in London it was 1968, he did not waste time asking who I was or what I wanted. Immediately he invited me straight into his house and to my astonishment not to say embarrassment further into the bedroom, to introduce me to Lea his partner. Right there and then he proceeded to lecture me about all and sundry as if we had been acquainted for decades. This was the beginning of a friendship, which was to last right up to his death.

Aki was a larger than life character. He was a natural communicator, a performer and a raconteur in search of an audience. Political affairs were but a small part of his oeuvre. In addition to politics, he had a great appetite for popular science, and for youth culture. His trajectory fascinated me. Born in 1931 to German parents in Berlin who brought him to Palestine in 1934, he was conscripted in 1948 to the newly created Israeli Navy, but did not see any action. On being demobilized he joined the merchant navy as a seaman. In 1951 he took part in a landmark seaman’s strike, which radicalized him and led him on the path, which would eventually take him into the Israeli Communist Party’s ranks. He explained his attraction to the party in unambiguous class terms. It was the only political movement in Israel at the time that came out in support of the strike. The party defended the striking workers against the police who brutally assaulted the striking seamen and against the Histadrut, which denied their right to establish an independent union. From the outset his trajectory would lead him to critically engage Zionism as a movement laying claim to a libratory essence. Ultimately in the years following Matzpen’s establishment, Aki broke completely with Zionism’s tenets.  Soon after, he decided to study mathematics and enrolled at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He remained active in the ranks of the Israeli Communist Party though he became increasingly disenchanted with the Soviet Union, starting with the twentieth party congress and the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. In 1962, the party expelled Aki and he in turn established along with a few comrades a radical organization under the name Matzpen (Compass-al Bousalla).

In 1964 he travelled to London and enrolled in university to continue his studies in physics.  He did not however end up as an academic in an ivory tower. Aki devoted most of his life especially since 1967 to lecturing and writing in an attempt to explain “to the left” the settler colonial nature of the Israeli state.

To the Arab student community in Britain at the time Aki’s presence was providential. He spoke a language they were not familiar with. His critique and denunciation of Zionism was based on the writings of Zionist leaders, Herzl, Pinsker, Jabotinsky, Weitzman, among others. He confounded Israel’s defenders, who had no response to a critique based on the actual words and actions of Israeli leaders, and the founders of the Zionist movement. He pointed to Israel’s collusion with the United Kingdom and France in the Suez campaign as proof of its subservience to imperialism. Everything he said seemed to confirm what Arab publicists had been striving to articulate, without much success. There was one fundamental difference; Aki had proof. His condemnations were not based on moral categories but on facts culled from Hebrew language publications, which were a closed book both to his Arab and British audiences.

He was an enthralling speaker. He enchanted listeners by the breadth of his knowledge; speaking without written notes he would devastate his critics. He included in his critique not only Israel’s leaders but also Arab kings, and presidents, not only an Israeli ruling class but also an Arab bourgeoisie. He pointed to the necessity for an all-encompassing socialist revolution in the Arab Mashriq as the only way to resolve the region’s problems. From the very start he defended the right of Palestinians to use every means at their disposal to achieve their rights including armed struggle. While he would not shy away from criticizing various actions and demonstrate that they were counter productive, he always emphasized that it was up to the Palestinians to determine the means of struggle. His critique was based on solidarity; it was never put forward in an adversarial fashion. Zionism had to be overthrown and the Israeli regime had to be dismantled and replaced by one Arab Jewish state.

His interests went beyond the immediate politics of the Middle East. For thirty years he lived in Europe and interacted with events and movements there. He belonged to a critical Marxist trend that found Marxism too rigid and confining, in an ever changing world. The world he lived in, he would opine, is not the one Marx and Engels inhabited. Their writings and the social/political movements they engendered had indeed contributed to a transformed capitalism. Contemporary critique had to take as its starting point current reality, not the nineteenth century conditions Marx and Engels described. He also exhibited an increasing interest in anarchist ideas and ways of organizing society. In his later years he held that the new technology and social media made the task of democratic participation easier and more practical.

He was and continued to be an optimist. In every small manifestation of protest he saw the possibility of positive change and of a long-awaited awakening both in Israel and globally. He touched many people’s lives. His house in London was a meeting place for people of all nationalities. He accepted difference and did not expect people to see the world in his terms. He never tried to force his views on others. He said what he had to say and people were free to agree or to disagree. Paradoxically, he ended up living in a small all-Jewish community near the Arab village of Qalansawa in the triangle, yet Qalansawa, not Netanya became his reference point.

 I last me him a few months before his death and he was his usual optimistic self. He recounted that he once asked his mother why his parents had decided to move to Palestine in the mid thirties. Her response was that one day she was pushing his pram in a Berlin park when she saw his little hand raised in the Nazi salute. Stupefied she looked around only to see a passing Nazi officer also with his hand raised in the Nazi salute. Horrified, she decided there and then she said to leave Germany. She did not want to take the risk of her son growing up to become a Nazi. To my mind he had invented this story to deliver a particular message. There is no immunity, neither for the cultured Germans of the 1930s, who succumbed to Hitler’s blandishments nor for anybody else, including the Jews themselves who were at the receiving end of that murderous period of European history.

In 1990, after retiring from his teaching job, Aki returned to Israel to care for his elderly mother. His funeral took place in a Yemenite cemetery occupying a corner of a field on the outskirts of an Arab village; it opened with a religious service, and was attended by a small group of Ashkenazi Jews and a handful of Arabs. The world he imagined has not come to pass. Perhaps not enough of us have allowed our imaginations to guide our actions! Re reading my words I cannot help but reflect that my world view has been influenced by him in more ways than even I can clearly recognize.

[A version of this piece will appear in the coming issue of Bidayat.]

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