- 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.
Warschawski deepened his collaboration with left-wing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories during the 1970s, among them Hanan Ashrawi, a young student of English literature. In the 1980s, he helped found two of the leading organisations of the Israeli peace movement: Yesh Gvul (‘There is a border’), a group that supported soldiers refusing to serve in Lebanon or the Occupied Territories, and the Alternative Information Center (AIC), which produced invaluable reports on the first intifada. He has served two terms in prison: the first in 1983, after he refused to fight in Lebanon; the second in 1989, after the AIC distributed a journal edited by a group of Palestinian students connected to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine which included a section on the use of torture by Israel’s secret services. Rather than brag of his time in jail, he characteristically notes that Palestinians behind bars had it far worse, since he enjoyed ‘the rare privilege of being moved around without the infamous stinking sack that was tied over the heads and faces of Arab prisoners, often for days at a time’.
On the Border, first published in French in 2002 and now ably translated by Levi Laub, provides a record of these adventures. But it is also a meditation on identity, colonialism, the meaning of solidarity and the solitude of Israel’s embattled revolutionary left. Warschawski has always been an unusually reflective activist, and defeat seems only to have sharpened his mind. He writes with self-deprecating, rueful wit about what some might view as his quixotic involvement with Israel’s anti-Zionist left. History hasn’t followed Matzpen’s script for permanent revolution in the Middle East, and Warschawski, chastened by events, writes that ‘at best’ history opens up opportunities, ‘which one does or does not grasp’. He knows those opportunities have been largely squandered, and that the ‘ethnicisation’ of the conflict has to some extent transformed it from a war over land into a clash over religion and identity. Yet his commitment to Arab-Jewish coexistence on the basis of equality remains undiminished.
Born in 1949, Warschawski grew up in Strasbourg. His childhood was ‘steeped in memories of the Nazi occupation’; his mother had worn the yellow star. ‘Anti-Fascism and deep-rooted rejection of any kind of racism were as strongly grounded in my education as the principles of religious practice.’ His parents were early supporters of Algerian independence, and his literature teacher at school was Jeanne Boissou-Mandouze, a progressive Christian who belonged to a network of French citizens providing aid to the FLN.
The Jewish community his father led as chief rabbi was divided, fractious and closed to the world outside: the native Alsatian Jews (like his mother) looked down on the Poles (like his father), while everyone looked down on the North Africans who arrived in the wake of decolonisation. For Warschawski, who seldom ‘ventured outside the invisible walls of that ghetto’, living ‘on the periphery became such a basic component of my personality that the idea of one day living in Paris never occurred to me’. Nor did it occur to him, when he decided to study in Israel, to go to urbane, European Tel Aviv, the fullest realisation of Zionist modernity. In West Jerusalem, the 16-year-old student found another ‘border city par excellence’, a ‘provincial town where everybody knew each other, whether they were from Kurdistan or Bessarabia, or part of the native Sephardic elite’, who ‘still spoke Ladino in cafés where they played backgammon while drinking arak to the sound of songs by Farid el-Atrashe’. Warschawski’s love for his adoptive city stands in vivid contrast to the feelings of the Tel Aviv liberals who see Jerusalem as a hotbed of fanaticism and outmoded, Levantine customs. He may be an atheist now, but – again unlike most Israeli secularists – he remains comfortable around religious traditions that Israel’s founders viewed as primitive relics.
The title of Warschawski’s book refers not only to his own experience of borders, but to Israel itself. As with most states born of violent partition, borders have played a central role in Israel’s history. While insisting on its ‘right to exist’ within ‘secure’ borders, Israel has never declared them, and its leaders resist any attempt to make them do so. Israel’s Defence Ministry insists that the so-called ‘separation fence’, which confiscates a significant portion of the Palestinian West Bank, including rich farming lands, creates a ‘seam’, not a border. The territory over which the Jewish state exercises sovereignty is, in all but name, a binational country. This in no small part accounts for Zionism’s schizophrenic relationship to borders, which are at once deemed necessary (for the sake of ‘separation’ from the Arabs) and resented (as an obstacle to further expansion).
Since the 1980s, Israel’s establishment left has had a romance with borders. By ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it was said, Israel could finally wash its hands of the ‘Palestinian problem’, ‘consolidate Jewish democracy’ within the Green Line, and once again turn its back on the region. But this identification of peace with separation (or ‘divorce’, as the Israeli novelist Amos Oz put it, improbably likening occupation to a bad marriage) was skilfully co-opted by Ariel Sharon, in the form of the Wall and the withdrawal from Gaza – with considerable support from the Zionist left. Warschawski, by contrast, has long insisted that separation can be only a short-term option, given the intricate interweaving of Arabs and Jews throughout historical Palestine, and that whether they are living in two states or one, theirs is a common destiny. While he has acted as a ‘border guard’ in defence of Palestinian ‘sovereignty, self-determination and independence’, he clearly prefers to be ‘a border runner’, shuttling back and forth between Israel and the Occupied Territories to promote ‘the values of solidarity and co-operation’.
Warschawski is not the Israeli left’s only border runner, but his fellow-travellers are few, and the ‘cross-border bridges, so carefully built during the 1980s, have collapsed’ with the death of the peace process, the construction of the Wall and the current confrontation with Hizbullah that threatens to engulf the region in flames. And while radical Jews have been shielded from Israeli state violence – a privilege denied to their Palestinian allies, as he readily admits – they have endured physical assaults, harassment, and ostracism bordering on excommunication. Warschawski was fired from his job teaching philosophy in a high school before his first term began, while, even in front of their son, Tsemel has often been called an ‘Arafat whore’ and a ‘traitor’ for her legal work on behalf of Palestinians accused of terrorist attacks. During the heady years of the Third World left, Warschawski, Tsemel and their comrades consoled themselves with the thought that, from an internationalist perspective, they were not in the minority. Rather, Israel itself was in the minority, ‘defending a reactionary policy and backward ideas . . . in the context of the decolonisation of the Arab world’. On visits to Jerusalem, radicals from Paris and Berkeley came ‘to share with us their illusions about the final crisis of the bourgeois system’.
We lived history with a capital ‘H’, every day, with the Vietnamese, the Fiat workers in Turin, the Black Panthers in New York or the Tri-Continental Conference in Cuba. History was synonymous with revolution, unfolding now or at least in the very near future. The Palestinian resisters were the catalysts of the soon-to-come uprising of the workers of Cairo and Damascus, which would reunify the Arab nation under socialism after overthrowing the reactionary regimes of the region, including, clearly, the Zionist state . . . Israel would disappear as an entity, but, faithful to the Leninist canon, we demanded the right of self-determination for the non-Arab minorities, the Kurds, the Israeli Jews, the southern Sudanese . . . Utopian? Certainly, but not too removed from the aspirations and slogans of the Arab nationalist or socialist left, with which we maintained an ongoing, scholarly and passionate political dialogue.
Living history exacts a heavy emotional toll, however, especially when it does not appear to be moving your way. While Matzpen’s Palestinian comrades made no secret of their attachment to Palestinian and Arab culture, Warschawski and his allies felt deracinated and adrift: ‘Having chosen to be citizens of the world, or members of an international class, we willingly cut off the roots that bound us to our society and our culture.’ It was a recipe not just for isolation but for political impotence, although Warschawski admits that it took him years to realise this. In 1974, on a train in Europe, he ran into a well-known French-Jewish Trotskyist (he isn’t named, but it might have been Ernst Mandel), who was reading Gershom Scholem:
Astonished, I asked him why the Jewish Cabbala interested him more than Zen Buddhism. He replied that it was part of his personal culture . . . Back in my compartment I thought to myself that the French Trotskyists still had a long way to go to grasp proletarian internationalism and become worthy heirs of the founder of the Red Army.
More than a decade later, just as he was organising the Committee against the Iron Fist with the late Palestinian leader Feisal Husseini, Warschawski began ‘a process of reappropriation of Jewish culture and rerooting in a national tradition’. The aim was not to reconcile himself with Zionism but to revive the values of diaspora Jewry that Zionism had suppressed, and to cultivate forms of Jewish identity that transcended Zionism’s volatile blend of insecurity and belligerence. As Warschawski observes, alluding to Karl Kraus’s observation about psychoanalysis, Zionism ‘shared some of the symptoms of the disease it was supposed to cure’, exalting the tough, virile sabra over the pale, sickly Jew of the shtetl, ethnic purity over the hybridisation of diaspora life. Indeed, it was only after going to Israel that he became the target of anti-semitism: ‘Stop acting like a little kike, you’re not in Strasbourg,’ he was told. The Jewish beneficiaries of Zionism, he argues, were also its victims, since they were taught to abandon, and even disdain, their cultural heritage. ‘Israeli identity was forged in a process of colonialisation and a dual destruction: of both the indigenous Arab population and of Jewish identity, or rather identities, prior to Zionism.’ Being an Israeli, he suggests, ‘is somehow refusing to be either a Jew or an Arab’.
This has been especially true for Israel’s large Mizrahi Jewish minority, whose ‘Oriental’ culture has long made them an object of Ashkenazi prejudice. The Mizrahi tend to be poorer and less secular than the Ashkenazis whose ancestors founded Israel, and they tend to vote for right-wing parties. (When last year the Moroccan-born Amir Peretz was elected as leader of the Labour Party, his defeated opponent, Shimon Peres, warned that North African elements were taking over the party, which Peres soon quit to join Sharon’s new party, Kadima. As Ehud Olmert’s defence minister, Peretz has rejoined the fold of Israeli p0litics in time-honoured fashion: by presiding over the destruction of Lebanon, as Peres himself did in 1996.) Warschawski writes about the Mizrahi with an affection that is rare among Ashkenazi leftists. Indeed, he expresses more sympathy for them than for his fellow Ashkenazis who dream of a fully Westernised country, the ‘villa in the jungle’ evoked by Ehud Barak. For the Mizrahi, he suggests (wishfully understating the bitterness many of them still feel towards their native countries, which turned on them in the collision of Zionism and Arab nationalism), ‘peace is also the opening of the border, but not the one that leads to Florence or London. Peace is the possibility of reconciliation with the Arab world.’
It may well be true that the Mizrahi represent Israel’s best hope of integration into the Middle East. But what kind of Middle East? A region of ‘border runners’ like Warschawski and the Arab left, or one of the ‘border guards’ like the Muslim Brothers and their Jewish fundamentalist cousins? The latter, more likely. For that reason, Warschawski cannot ally himself unreservedly with the Mizrahi, who seem to stand on the opposite side of the religious/secular divide that defines Israeli domestic politics. Or do they? ‘This question is more difficult than the one we had to answer during the 1960s and 1970s,’ he admits. When a friend asked him to help organise a demonstration against the banning of cars on the Sabbath in an ultra-religious neighbourhood of Jerusalem, he agonised, before deciding that he belonged ‘on the other side of the barricade, defending the right of the religious to live their Sabbath as they like, in the quarters where they are a clear majority’. Like most choices he has made, it has left him in a lonely place. ‘Once again, I find myself on the other side of the border, with men and women with whom I do not share any values, who live in a world I left behind more than three decades ago, and against those who are at least formally committed to values that are my own.’
Warschawski reserves his harshest criticisms for the Zionist left, which embraced the Oslo Accords, believed in the myth of Barak’s ‘generous offer’ and Arafat’s rejection, and learned to love Ariel Sharon after the Gaza withdrawal (even as Sharon moved even more settlers into the West Bank). On the one hand, he says, Zionist peaceniks feel nothing but contempt for the Orthodox. On the other, they cannot bring themselves to support a ‘total separation of religion and state’ since this would amount to Israel’s de-Zionisation: its transformation into a state based on citizenship rather than ethnic identity, something tantamount, in some eyes, to the ‘destruction of Israel’. ‘The left Zionist,’ he writes,
believes in democratic values and wants to live in a democracy. But above all, he wants a Jewish state. Thus he becomes the promoter of the philosophy of separation, not simply as a means but as a fundamental value . . . the left Zionist also wants separation in order to protect democracy and progress, that is to say, his European, modern, liberal and secular civilisation, when faced with the Arab world, which frightens him.
Warschawski is also critical of the ‘coloniser of the far left’ who ignores ‘the political literature of the Arab national movement’, preferring ‘to fashion the colonised in his own image’. The far left coloniser grants the Palestinians everything, except ‘the right to decide for themselves, including the right to make the compromises they judge necessary’. The fear of being plus Palestinien que les Palestiniens may have led Warschawski to temper his criticisms of the Oslo Accords, even as they were denounced, presciently, by some of his Palestinian friends as, in Edward Said’s words, ‘a Palestinian Versailles’. Warschawski was acutely aware that Oslo failed to secure a freeze on settlements, and that it could transform the Palestinian Authority into Israel’s gendarme. Still, he held out the hope that the Accords might be a first step towards Arab-Jewish reconciliation. He remembers thinking:
Finally, we were going . . . to work on answers to all these questions: who are we if we’re not at war? What will unite us? . . . What model of citizenship do we want to adopt? Finally the true questions, and not only ‘the occupation is bad.’ I hoped that the second half of my life as an activist would be devoted to these questions. I was dreaming.
An uncharitable reader might ask: when wasn’t he dreaming? Although Warschawski has always had a more hard-nosed understanding than the Zionist left of what Israel has done to the Palestinians, he has underestimated the spell Zionism cast over the Jews – perhaps because he himself was immune to it. He has tried to persuade his fellow Jews that their true interests – peace, security and even cultural expression – would be better served by an Israeli state that ended institutionalised discrimination against its Palestinian minority. Thanks to the seductions of nationalism, decades of fear-mongering by Israeli politicians, Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and the rise of Hizbullah, Israel’s most implacable adversary, he is no closer to achieving this goal than he was in the days of Matzpen – though not for lack of trying.
Warschawski’s faith in persuasion, and his conviction that change could be effected through Israel’s (truncated) democracy, by peaceful, legal means, were not shared by all his comrades in Matzpen. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the group inspired manifestos against the occupation, including a famous open letter to the defence minister Moshe Dayan from four young Israelis refusing to ‘serve in an occupying and oppressing army’. And by meeting with the PLO leadership abroad, they helped ‘build a conduit between the Palestinian national movement and Israelis who did not belong to an anti-Zionist far left’. But this had never been the aim of Matzpen, which ‘thought in terms of international revolution’. Unsurprisingly, some Matzpeniks concluded in frustration that theirs had been a toothless form of opposition and that Israeli Jews were hopelessly compromised by colonialism; a few, notably Ilan Halévy, joined the PLO. At the heart of the debate, which led to Matzpen’s disbanding, was a disagreement over solidarity. For Halévy, solidarity required a radical break with the Israeli community, a crossing of the border and a merging with the Other. For Warschawski, solidarity
is a border phenomenon: it develops at the point where two collectives collide in conflict. It is also, by definition, external: one is in solidarity with the other, and in this sense it always starts with the expression of one’s own identity, distinct from that of the victim with whom one is in solidarity . . . Paradoxically, it was through solidarity with the Palestinians that my identity as an Israeli Jew was strengthened and I was able to step beyond the supranational, global identity à la proletariat that I had adopted in the early days of my activity as a militant.
The Matzpeniks who crossed the border, becoming PLO fellow-travellers or functionaries, deprived themselves of an influence over either population. As an Israeli Jew who served longer than any other reservist on the Jordanian border – while refusing to serve in Lebanon or the Occupied Territories – Warschawski has helped shape, and at times radicalise, the Israeli left. His victories were small, as he concedes, but they were not negligible. And by campaigning not only for an end to the occupation, but for Arab equality inside Israel, where even most peaceniks are Jewish nationalists, Warschawski and his comrades helped open a space for a genuine liberal politics, a challenge to Zionism that Israel will find much harder to dismiss than Matzpen’s revolutionary Marxism.
Indeed, it is precisely Warschawski’s liberal universalism – his aversion to injustice and cruelty, regardless of the victim’s identity – that seems to have inoculated him from the tribalism that afflicts Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs, and so many of their partisans abroad. For Israel’s unconditional supporters, anything the Jewish state does – the bombing of refugee camps, extrajudicial killings, torture, the demolition of homes, the seizure of Palestinian land, the destruction of olive groves, the denial of Israeli passports to the Palestinian spouses of ‘Arab Israelis’ (recently approved by the Supreme Court), the collective punishment of Lebanese civilians – is passionately defended in the name of ‘security’; even, obscenely, in the name of the Holocaust. But as Israel has abandoned all pretence of a ‘liberal occupation’, conducting pitiless reprisal raids in civilian areas, parts of the Palestinian solidarity movement have also succumbed to what Warschawski describes as the logic of ‘inter-ethnic war’, locked in an uncritical embrace with Israel’s victims, sanitising suicide attacks as anti-colonial resistance, and vilifying Israeli Jews as a monolithic nation of oppressors. When Ilan Pappe announced the ‘death of the Israeli left’, referring to the collapse of the Zionist peace camp and its failure to mount any resistance to the repression of the second intifada or the construction of the Wall, Warschawski sadly agreed. But he smelled a ‘bad odour’ in the ‘malicious joy’ with which some supporters of the Palestinian cause greeted Pappe’s remarks: ‘Those activists got their proof that there is nothing to expect from the Israeli people . . . and there’s no point wasting time on them. With this approach they have jumped feet first into the discourse of global culture war, in which everyone is called on to line up behind a nation or ethnic group against another nation or ethnic group.’
As the conflict becomes increasingly ethnicised, under the complacent eyes of the United States and now Europe, Warschawski seems, if anything, rather too sheepish about the revolutionary messianism that originally inspired him. It is, of course, true that he lost his ‘bet on class interest’. The Arab left is a spent force, vastly outnumbered by Islamic fundamentalists whose vision of society has far more in common with Israel’s settlers than with Warschawski or Hanan Ashrawi. A socialist revolution in Israel-Palestine that would ignite the region’s masses is not on the horizon. During the lonely years, Warschawski was sustained by his faith in international revolution – by the power of an illusion. But without it he might have made far fewer sacrifices.
Fortunately, the utopian impulse has not abandoned him altogether, as when he imagines an Israel that ‘can fashion that new border identity, where Warsaw and Casablanca, Aleppo and Berlin crossbreed, an identity turned towards Damascus and Alexandria, open to the world and receptive to differences’. The rhetoric of cultural reconciliation may be less rousing than that of revolution – suggesting the narrowed scope of Warschawski’s hopes – but it evokes another kind of promised land, liberated from the nationalisms and religions that lay exclusive claim to it. What, then, could possibly convince Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs to live together on equitable terms? ‘Common sense’, perhaps, which he finds embodied in Israelis and Palestinians who, whatever their beliefs, seek to ‘halt the mad race to the abyss’. Today, the only thing that can be safely predicted about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it will go on. But if it ever achieves resolution, yesterday’s utopianism may turn out to be tomorrow’s realism.