- On the Border by Michel Warschawski, translated by Levi Laub
Pluto, 228 pp, £14.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 7453 2325 1
In the early 1970s, Israeli officials began to take note of a disquieting phenomenon: the rise in pro-Palestinian sentiment on the European left, which in the aftermath of the Holocaust had been largely supportive of the Jewish state. The French youths who had declared ‘we are all German Jews’ after the arrest of the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, whose German Jewish parents had fled to France in 1933, were now protesting against the Israeli occupation – Cohn-Bendit among them. Israel, like most occupying powers seeking to delegitimise an insurgency, detected the invisible hand of outside agitators. The culprits were identified as members of the Israeli Socialist Organisation, a groupuscule of about fifty anti-Zionist, left-wing Israelis, some Arab but mostly Jewish. The ISO was better known as Matzpen (‘Compass’), after the party’s newspaper. This ‘gang of traitors’, the head of the youth department of the Jewish Agency thundered, ‘are the real initiators and planners of the poisonous Fatah propaganda against Israel . . . distributed in Britain and Europe’.
In Eran Torbiner’s 2003 documentary, Matzpen, Cohn-Bendit, now a Green MEP, characterised the group in strikingly different language: he said it represented ‘the honour of Israel’. Two decades before Israel’s new historians debunked the country’s founding myths, Matzpen analysed Zionism as a unique form of settler-colonialism, based on the expulsion and displacement of the native population rather than its exploitation, and argued for a binational state for Arabs and Jews – the prelude, it hoped, to a ‘socialist revolution throughout the Arab East’. While the Israeli Communist Party commemorated the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as a struggle for national independence, Matzpen, which broke from the CPI in 1962, viewed it as a campaign of ethnic cleansing (or tihour, the term used by Zionist forces at the time). In fact it was both – but only Matzpen had the courage to speak of ethnic cleansing.
The party’s audacity went well beyond words. Matzpen was the first Israeli group to defy the ban on meetings with members of the PLO, and to work with – rather than on behalf of – Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. It forged especially strong ties with the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose call for a democratic secular state of Arabs and Jews reflected Matzpen’s influence. As Khalil Hindi, a DFLP representative in London, recalls in Torbiner’s documentary, ‘Matzpen helped, if you will, to de-demonise the Israelis and to show that there were people with whom you could even organise a common front.’ Young, charismatic, friendly with Palestinians and the European left, the Matzpeniks shouted the anti-imperialist slogans heard in the streets of every modern metropolis except Tel Aviv, infuriating Israelis across the political spectrum. One right-wing politician denounced Matzpen as ‘the group that wants to push us back to Auschwitz’. The left-wing maverick Uri Avnery sneered at female Matzpeniks as ‘Fatah girls’ – Hebrew for ‘nigger lovers’. Matzpen’s pamphlets were burned at autos-da-fé, and its newspapers were censored. Jewish Matzpeniks were interrogated; Arab members were placed under house arrest or forced into exile. Whenever Matzpeniks gathered in public, they elicited the fury – and often the violence – of counter-demonstrators.
Michel Warschawski, a Hebrew University philosophy student from Strasbourg, had stumbled across one of those confrontations in October 1967, a few months after the Israeli conquest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Israel had slipped into a ‘virtual trance’ of national euphoria after the June victory, and Warschawski was among the sleepwalkers. The son of Strasbourg’s chief rabbi, he had come to Jerusalem two years earlier, at the age of 16, to study Talmud at an academy founded by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, whose heirs would create the radical settler movement Gush Emunim a decade later. Though Warschawski had left Talmudic school for university, he still wore a yarmulka and was ‘shocked’ by the Matzpeniks’ ‘long hair, jeans and miniskirts’. Yet he was even more shocked by the abuse hurled at them when they handed out leaflets describing war crimes committed by the Israeli army, notably the deportation of the inhabitants of the Latroun Valley, a strategically valuable area on the road into Jerusalem, and the razing of its three villages. On the last day of the war, Warschawski, ‘unknowing and uncomprehending’, had witnessed the procession of refugees driven from the valley. A month later, leading a group of fellow Alsatians on a tour of newly occupied Hebron, he felt uneasy.
I saw the submissive and humiliated look of the Arab merchant, with whom I was trying to bargain for a lamb’s skin with all the arrogance of all the colonisers of the world. As if slapped in the face, I suddenly became aware that, this time, he was the oppressed, and I was on the other side of the border, with the strong.
Later that evening he called his father, a veteran of the Resistance, who told him: ‘Any kind of occupation is wrong and morally corrupts those who take part in it; pray to the heavens that this one ends as quickly as possible.’ And so, in response to those heckling the Matzpeniks, Warschawski ‘made the mistake of saying: “You are wrong, what they write is precisely true, I saw it with my own eyes!” I received blows and insults. The skullcap I was wearing only seemed to make matters worse. It was my first encounter with Matzpen.’
Warschawski’s ‘mistake’ led to an extraordinary career as an activist and intellectual on Israel’s small, isolated radical left, the subject of his stirring and incisive memoir, On the Border. Having converted from Orthodox Judaism to anti-Zionist Trotskyism, and from religious messianism to secular messianism, he went from protesting against driving and the performance of autopsies on the Sabbath to protesting against what even liberal Israelis called the ‘enlightened occupation’. In 1968, he fell for a fiery young law student, Léa Tsemel, who would become a leading defender of Palestinian militants on trial in Israeli military courts. Warschawski and Tsemel have long been the flagship couple of Israel’s far left, hated by much of the Israeli public but revered by their admirers.