Matzpen: Revolutionary anti-Zionism in Israel

Doug Enaa Greene's article below was based on his lecture on the history and perspectives of the Israeli Socialist Oranization (Matzpen), presented to the Center for Marxist Education.

For more by Doug Enaa Greene, click HERE.

By Doug Enaa Greene

December 23, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Shortly after the June 1967 war, revolutionary socialists, both Jewish and Palestinian, published a joint statement denouncing the war and calling for an end to Zionism. The Jewish socialists were perceived as traitors by Israeli society. In reply, the Jewish socialists published the following reply:

Self-righteously, you brand us as traitors. What are we accused of betraying? A supposed national interest? Your racist prejudices? How can we betray a cause that we never claimed as our own? We are expressing our human dignity by rejecting all forms of chauvinism and racism.[1]

The revolutionary socialists of the Israeli Socialist Organization (or “Matzpen”) were correct. They were never loyal to the Zionist dream of an apartheid Jewish state or the ethic cleansing of the indigenous population. The intrepid members of this group were principled internationalists, utterly opposed to Zionism, colonialism. They stood forthright in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for national liberation.

In practically every way, the Israeli Socialist Organization was the best socialist group to come out of Israel – they were developed a Marxist and anti-imperialist understanding of Zionism and Israel along with supporting Palestinian national liberation. This is not to say that we should uphold all their positions, many of which have come under deserved criticism from other adherents to Matzpen, which we will discuss along with their implications for the struggle in Palestine.


Matzpen was formed in 1962, by 15 people, four of whom -- Moshe Machover, Akiva Orr, Oded Pilavesky and Yrmiyahu Kaplan -- were members of the Israeli Communist Party. The immediate reasons the four comrades were expelled from the Israeli CP (MAKI) was for demanding to know more about the Sino-Soviet dispute, the victory of the Cuban Revolution and the recent defeat of the Iraqi CP, and questioning old dogmas and demanding democratisation. Among the dogmas that were questioned was MAKI's support for the creation of Israel in 1948, the party's characterisation of the 1948 war as a struggle for national liberation and its positive appraisal of Zionism.

The expelled soon made contact with dissident Trotskyist communists in Israel, largely Palestinian (ex. Jabra Nicola), from Haifa and the Galilee who since the early 1930s had opposed the line of MAKI and the USSR. The two groups joined forces on the following agreed points of unity: rejection of Zionism, unequivocal advocacy for revolutionary socialism, anti-Stalinism, opposition to the Soviet political and ideological lines, support for genuine international solidarity, support for the national rights of the Palestinian population, integration of Israel in a wider Middle Eastern socialist federation on the basis of self-determination.

The organisation that was formed of the fusion was called the Israeli Socialist Organization and it published a monthly newspaper known as Matzpen (or the Compass), which is what they are popularly known as.

As Matzpen member Tikva Honig-Parnass explained to me:

Matzpen was the only organization in Israel which saw Zionism as a colonial project and the state of Israel as the tool for the embodiment, enforcement and expansion of the Zionist project. Until now even the Communist Party (Hadash -- the front headed by it) has not yet framed their criticism of Israel's policies in the anti-colonial perspective. It was a Stalinist party and its representative (Meir Vilner) was among those who signed on 14 May 1948 what came to be called “The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel”. Matzpen's anti- Zionism stemmed from being socialist and anti-imperialist. Israel was depicted as serving Britain and later the USA imperial interests in the region, as the lesser partner aiming to abolish any bud of independence in the area. All this -- with the collaboration of the corrupted Arab regimes who oppressed and exploited their people.

Following the June 1967 war, when Israel annexed the West Bank and Gaza, Matzpen and the Palestinian Democratic Front issued a joint statement in opposition to the war and the occupation. The statement was technically written before the war and spelled out the conditions for a just resolution to the conflict: the de-Zionisation of Israel, the right of return for Palestinians, and the right of the Palestinians to their own state.

Following the 1967 war, all the Zionist parties whether “left” or right supported Israel holding onto the West Bank and Gaza. Matzpen, and the MAKI to its credit, opposed the occupation. While the CP has a decent record on defending Palestinian rights in Israel, it is not a revolutionary party and advocates a vague reformist “democracy and equality”. However, Matzpen not only advocated the national rights of Palestinians, but also their right to resistance, even if it was through violent means. In a statement from March 22, 1968, Matzpen declared:

It is both the right and duty of every conquered and subjugated people to resist and to struggle for its freedom. The ways, means and methods necessary and appropriate for such struggle must be determined by die people itself and it would be hypocritical for strangers-especially if they belong to the oppressing nation – to preach to it, saying, “Thus shalt thou do, and thus shalt thou not do.”[2]

Considering Matzpen's statements in opposition to Zionism and for the end of the occupation, its members found themselves subjected to smears and attacks by the Israeli media and repression by the state. Most of this repression fell mainly on the Arab members of Matzpen. The organisation was considered a national security threat even though its numbers never exceeded a core of several dozen and a periphery of several hundred. As one former member described it, “for more than five years, every kind of trouble that occurred in Israel would be blamed on Matzpen”. Some of the most vicious attacks on Matzpen were directed against it by members of the Zionist “left”, which saw Israel as a beacon of socialist and democratic values and opposed Palestinian national self-determination. While the left Zionists always posed as enlightened and progressive, they now found themselves placed in an uncomfortable position due to the sharp questions that Matzpen raised.

Despite Matzpen's small size, the organisation managed to remain active in a multitude of struggles. They opposed settlement construction in the Occupied Territories and repression against Palestinians. Matzpen was also involved in the student movement, in fact they managed to make a motion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem that not only called for the end of settlements, and an end to the occupation, but to dismantle any and all laws that protected the “Jewish character” of Israel. Matzpen also worked closely with the Arab Student Union, which was marginalised and repressed by the state, and the two groups worked together in support of those in the occupied territories. Matzpen's support for national liberation in Palestine won it favourable support from Arab youth in Israel.

Matzpen also had supporters among the Jewish youth in Israel. The late 1960s were a time of social upheaval and non-conformism among the youth, and Israel was not immune. Hundreds of high school students identified with the anti-militarism and rebellion that Matzpen represented.[3]

The influence of Matzpen was felt by the founders of the Israeli Black Panther movement that lasted from 1971-1972. The Panthers were composed of Mizrahi Jews, who were immigrants from the Arab world and North Africa. The Mizrahi Jews were subjected to racism by the more European Ashkenazi Jews, they came to compromise the bulk of the Jewish working class concentrated in blue-collar jobs, and they lived in poverty.

The Panthers, taking inspiration not only from the US Black Panthers but also Matzpen, linked their demands for social equality, anti-Zionism to the liberation of Palestinians (one of the leaders of the Panthers met with the PLO). The Panthers launched major demonstrations in Jerusalem that were militant – attacking the symbols of the MAPAI [Labor Party] and the official trade union movement. The Panthers soon found themselves targeted by the police. The Panthers and Matzpen worked closely together organising demonstrations, anti-police work and bringing in other progressive Israelis. By late 1972, police repression and media smears ended the appeal of the Panthers, later the dissatisfaction of the Mizahim was exploited by religious and conservative parties.[4]

Matzpen was internationalist, non-dogmatic and embraced a slew of differing Marxist currents. By the 1970s, as the organisation grew, internal tensions mounted. Two splits developed in the organisation – the Trotskyist Workers' Alliance (Vanguard) that considered the struggle against Zionism to be irrelevant and urged focus on the working-class struggles, and the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Alliance (Struggle), which saw Arab nationalism as a revolutionary force.

However, neither of these splits were particularly large. A more damaging split occurred in 1972 when a group based in Jerusalem affiliated to the Trotskyist Fourth International. None of Matzpen's founders supported the split and considered it a sectarian move and the issues raised had little to do with the concrete struggle in Israel. As opposed to a single organisation that was able to punch above its weight class, now two groups of equal size existed that were not as effective.

In 1977, there was a seemingly small change when the group changed its name from the Israeli Socialist Organization (Matzpen) to the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen). This change was meant to emphasise its internationalism. The group already had links with various New Left, Marxist and revolutionary groups in Europe and Latin America dating from the 1960s. One of the groups that Matzpen collaborated with was the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist organisation sympathetic to Trotsky. Matzpen also worked with the much larger Maoist/Guevarist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Trotskyist split from Matzpen would later work closely with the PFLP in prison solidarity work.

Matzpen's end as a cohesive socialist organisation came in the early 1980s following several splits and the rise of less ideologically rigid protest movements within Israel. Many members of Matzpen became involved in these organisations, such as forming the Alternative Information Center for information sharing and joint Palestinian-Israeli cooperation. By the late 1980s, the organisation was largely defunct, even though most members continued to be involved in various anti-occupation and Palestinian solidarity movements. And debates among members of this network on political and theoretical questions continue.

The Israeli working class

Before moving onto Matzpen's analysis of Zionism, I'd like to discuss its views on the Israeli working class, both Jews and Palestinians. As Marxists, Matzpen shared the very fundamental idea that the working class is the key force for revolutionary change in society. Yet that still leaves us to ask: what role, if any, did Matzpen see Jewish workers playing in the struggle? To answer this question, Matzpen posed the following questions: How did Zionist colonisation shape the consciousness and organisation of Jewish workers? What effect did imperialism play in the formation of Jewish workers?

Matzpen's views were elaborated most succinctly in a 1969 article entitled The Class Structure of Israel, by Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr.[5] The three factors that the article sees as most decisive in shaping Israeli society and its working class are the following:

1. In the late 1960s, Israel was composed largely of Jewish immigrants or children of immigrants. Immigrants saw their arrival in Israel as a chance for upward social advancement and to better their station in life through hard work. Many immigrants to Israel were more likely to identify their social position by geographic or ethnic origin, which was a major barrier to the formation of revolutionary class consciousness.

2. Second, and probably most importantly, Israel is not just a nation of immigrants but of settlers and colonisers who dispossess, expel and occupy Palestine. Jewish labour unions, kibbutzim and land purchases (or theft) were thus predicated on the overriding objective of expelling the indigenous population and establishing a supremacy of the Jewish settlers. Israeli Jewish workers along with capitalists had very much to gain from the national oppression and expulsion of Palestinians. The struggle between indigenous Palestinians and Zionist settlers is still ongoing and it shapes all of Israeli society.

Yet in Israel, there is class differentiation between an Israeli bourgeoisie, along with a privileged European-Ashkenazi Jewish workers, and poorer Mizrahim Jews lacking union protection and social services. However, all Jews in Israel, no matter how poor, are considered citizens and receive privileges as compared to the richest Palestinian, since they are part of the Zionist “Jewish State” and support racist measures. They rally to the government during wars or other national “emergencies”.

Below the Israeli Jewish population are the Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Israel, who make up 20% of the population. In Israel's pre-1967 borders, Palestinians are a reserve army of labour, receive poor wages, lack of union protection, social benefits, health care, lack of access to land and education compared to Israeli Jews. Palestinians are also second-class citizens and considered a fifth column in Israel (until 1966 Palestinians were under military rule). They are denied both democratic and national rights as Palestinians by the Israeli state, which declares itself to be a Jewish state.

3. Privileges for Jews are maintained by way of Israel's connections with imperialism through capital investment, subsidies and billions in military aid. This aid, distributed by the state and the official trade unions, went topay for social programs, housing, financing employment, and maintaining the standard of living for Israeli Jews. Thus Israel is a society that has a standard of living far beyond what is produced.

At the time Matzpen made its analysis, the number of immigrants in Israel had declined and more people had been born there. Second, in the early 1970s Israel's state sector controlled more than 50% of the economy. Since the 1980s, there has been a major wave of privatisation from kibbutzim to welfare, which has produced a highly unequal income distribution.

However, neoliberalism has not fundamentally altered the attitudes of Israeli Jews in regards to Zionism. For example, during 2011 protests, inspired by the Arab Spring, in favour of social justice, Palestinian demands and issues were largely absent. During the recent Gaza war nearly 90% of Israeli Jews supported the government's wanton slaughter of Palestinians.
Whatever class differences Israeli Jews may have, as part of an oppressor nationality that uses state power to enforce an apartheid system, they band together in the face of the Palestinian and Arab “threat”. The conclusion that Matzpen offered in this regard is still valid:

In the context of Israeli society it means that as long as Zionism is politically and ideologically dominant within that society, and forms the accepted framework of politics, there is no chance whatsoever of the Israeli working class becoming a revolutionary class. The experience of 50 years does not contain a single example of Israeli workers being mobilised on material or trade-union issues to challenge the Israeli regime itself; it is impossible to mobilise even a minority of the proletariat in this way. On the contrary, Israeli workers nearly always put their national loyalties before their class loyalties.

Who then, did Matzpen see as the revolutionary agent for change? In historic Palestine, it would come largely from those who suffer from the results of Zionism, namely the Palestinians. As long as Israel remained subsidised by imperialism and a Zionist state, there were few hopes of the internal social conflicts developing a revolutionary character. Rather, Matzpen believed a revolutionary breakthrough was more likely to come from an Arab revolution that would change the balance of power. However, as we shall see later, there are definite objections to Matzpen's regional approach.

Matzpen on Zionism

When Matzpen developed its views on Zionism in the early 1960s, it was a break not only with the perspectives of the existing Israeli left (notably the MAKI), but the wider international left, which viewed Israel rather favourably. Matzpen saw Zionism not as a progressive national-liberation movement, a socialist experiment or as the salvation of the Jewish people, but as a settler colonial project supported by Western imperialism. Matzpen's insights were rooted in a Marxist anti-imperialist framework.

According to Moshe Machover[6], Matzpen's analysis of Zionism and Israel can be summarised in four points:

1. "Zionism is a colonising project, and Israel, its embodiment, is a settler state. The core of the Israeli-Arab conflict is the clash between Zionist colonisation and the indigenous people, the Palestinian Arabs[…]."

2. "We pointed out that Zionist colonisation belongs to a different species from, for example, that of South Africa and Algeria: rather than being based on exploiting the labour-power of the indigenous people, it sought to exclude and eliminate them."

3. "We insisted on the regional context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Due to the specific features of Zionist colonisation, the balance of power is heavily tilted in favour of Israel (backed by its imperialist sponsor) and against the Palestinian people. The imbalance could only be redressed, and Palestinian liberation would only become possible, as part of a revolutionary transformation of the region, by an Arab revolution led by the working class, which would overthrow the repressive regimes, unify the Arab east and put an end to imperialist domination over it[…]."

4. "Our regional view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict applied not only to the process whereby it would be resolved, but extended also to the form of the resolution itself. Unlike almost all who addressed the issue, we did not believe that a resolution would occur within the confines of Palestine (established by the British imperialists and their French allies following World War I). Thus, we did not advocate a so-called ‘two-state solution’ in a repartitioned Palestine, nor a ‘one-state solution’ in a unitary Palestine. Instead, we envisaged incorporation of the two national groups – the Palestinian Arabs and the Hebrews (so-called Israeli Jews) – as units with equal rights within a socialist regional union or federation of the Arab east."

Some of these points I won’t discuss in great detail here, notably those in relation to the settler colonial nature of Zionism. On the far left, with minor exceptions, these points are not in dispute. Even many historians in the past several decades would recognise the colonial nature of the Zionist project. However, I would like to touch on some controversy around these positions which have developed among members of Matzpen. For instance, Tikva Honig-Parnass objects to the following points in a recent 2014 article entitled “One democratic state in historic Palestine: A socialist viewpoint”:[7]

1. The claim that Hebrew and Arab-Palestinian nations were both created by imperialism and Zionist colonialism and therefore deserve equal national rights.

2. The resolution of the conflict is conditioned on the future defeat of imperialistrule in the region and its replacement by a regional socialist federal union. This position disregards the Palestinian national movement and opposes the democratic struggle and democratic tasks undertaken by the one-state movement.

I will take up these two objections, and a third related to a comparison of Israel and South Africa, in the subsequent sections. I should add, that the debate between Tikva Hoing-Parnass and Moshe Machover will be the guiding thread for the rest of this essay.

Hebrew nation

In 1968, when Matzpen released a document that defended the right of Palestinians to resist the occupation, it also added this point:

While recognizing the unconditional right of the conquered to resist occupation, we can support only such organizations which, in addition to resisting occupation, also recognize the right of the Israeli people for self-determination. On such a basis die struggle of the Palestinian people can become combined in a joint struggle of Arabs and Jews in the region for a common future.[8]

Matzpen's defence of the existence of a secular Jewish or Hebrew nation was developed most succinctly by Moshe Machover in The Case for Hebrew Self-Determination written in 1972.[9] He believes that Jews in Israel satisfy all the requirements for being considered a nation (common territory, culture, language, socio-economic structure, etc.). Machover argues that Zionism helped foster Jewish national consciousness, fostered Hebrew, and created a separate Jewish culture and mentality.

Machover believed that because the solution to Zionism would be through a regional Arab socialist revolution, not one or two states, Jews should be granted the right to self-determination. According to Machover, this solution ofgranting national rights to Israeli-Jews does not mean accepting Zionism or recognising Israel: “On the contrary, it means just the opposite. Such a right can only be granted, will only become meaningful, when Zionism and the present Israeli state are overthrown.”[10]

Tikva Hoing-Parnass objects to this thesis, by arguing:[11]

1. Since the early days of Zionist colonisation, the settlers could not but adopt the “Zionist premises that conferred legitimacy on the Zionist colonial project in which they enthusiastically participated. These premises consist of the recognition of the Jewish nation which has returned to its homeland and assumes its religion-based rights to ‘the Land of Israel’. No genuine secular culture has been developed among the settlers until this very day”.

2. It was precisely the Zionist leadership who nourished the nationalist view of Jewish settlers coming to “reclaim the land” with its accompanying militarism, racism, etc. which permeated not only during the Mandate era, but through the history of Israel.

3. No concept of a Hebrew nation has ever replaced a commitment to Jewish and Zionist identity in Israel. “On the contrary, the more the bloody nature of Zionist colonial expansion is disclosed, its need for ‘Jewish’ legitimization grows as well.”

4. Lastly, Machover's advocacy of a fake Hebrew nation ignores the long existence of a Palestinian nation. In this situation, Palestinian nationalism and “Hebrew nationalism” have equal status.

Tikva Hoing-Parnass goes on and says that the vision of granting equal rights to both nations and incorporating them in an socialist federation is to forget that “the Marxist call for self-determination has never placed an equal sign between the rights of the oppressed and their oppressors”.

Machover's regional solution is so far off in the future that it disregards “Palestinian national movement, and the negation of democratic revolution and democratic tasks, as a condition for the socialist revolution”. These are points we will discuss below.

Conflict and resolution

So what is a proposed solution? In a 2006 article, "Resolution of The Israeli–Palestinian conflict: A socialist viewpoint", Moshe Machover argues for a regional solution, not a one or two state solution. He believes that the two-state solution would be difficult to implement under current conditions or in the near future – due to Israeli military and political dominance the Palestinians would only gain a disconnected enclaves and fake sovereignty. In this situation, the demands of the Palestinians for the right to return and the racist nature of Israel would be unaddressed.

However, Machover argues against the one state solution. In asking the questions, “How may the Hebrew nation, or a majority of it, be induced to give up its present oppressive privilege and overwhelming dominant position? What means of coercion or persuasion, what combination of pressures and promises, what sticks and carrots can achieve this?”[12]

Turning to the South Africa analogy, he believes that since the Israeli state seeks not subjugate the Palestinians, but exclude them, the situation is not analogous to the struggle there. The Palestinians are ruthlessly colonised and have little to bargain with. Unlike the blacks in South Africa, the Palestinians don't overwhelmingly outnumber the Israeli-Jews. Ultimately, he doesn't believe that there is any force within Israel itself that can force the state to yield to the demands for Palestinian liberation. Ultimately, the only solution he advocates is a Middle Eastern socialist revolution.

Now let us tie everything together by turning once more to Hoing-Parnass. She rejects the conception that South African apartheid is different species of colonialism than Israel. While it is true that South Africa sought to exploit black labour and Israel wants to expel Palestinians, these aspirations cannot be implemented currently. Rather, Israel maintains its rule over all of historic Palestine and its ruling class profits from the exploitation of Palestinians including through the collaborationist Palestinian Authority. “The means of direct exploitation of Palestinian workers and farmers has become part and parcel of the occupation’s oppression...”[13]

In objection to Machover, it should be further added that the South African solution to apartheid was not something a socialist should uphold. The white rulers made a “generous deal” that effectively left the ruling socio-economic structure largely in place that only abolished the political portions of apartheid. Thus the economic necessity of black workers was not enough for breaking white rule of the economy or ending their exploitation.

In focusing regionally, Machover's proposed solution ignores and rejects the role of the Palestinian national liberation movement. However, as socialists, we need to maintain an independent position and to develop a clear understanding of the relation between the Palestinian struggle and socialism. As Tikva Honig-Parnass argues:

The realization of a socialist revolution in the region cannot be abstracted from or counterpoised to the democratic tasks of the revolution, which are embodied in the one-state perspective: the struggle for national self-determination of the oppressed in one democratic state in Historic Palestine.[14]

Socialists support the national and democratic struggle of the Palestinians, which is a bridge from present concerns to that of socialism. A “socialism now” approach ignores the importance that democratic and other immediate demands play in the developing struggle. Just look at the Arab Spring with its demands against neoliberalism and for democracy which is against imperialism and Arab reaction.

For the Palestinians, the democratic tasks are imperative for those under the jackboot of Zionist oppression in historic Palestine. “Their primary aims are national liberation, the return of the refugees, the unification of the Palestinian people in their historic homeland, a true political democracy, and a nonracial state in the entirety of Palestine.”[15]

The demand for one state has been gaining ground among Palestinians in the camps, exile and in occupied Palestine. Progressive anti-Zionist Jews also support this. A bridge getting there is to support boycotts, divestments and sanctions on apartheid Israel. The demand for a single secular democratic socialist state of Palestine is a direct challenge to Zionism and imperialism in the Middle East. Socialists need to be forthright and bold in support for one state of Palestine as key to our revolutionary struggle.

[I would like to extend a thank you to Matzpen member, Tikva Hoing-Parnass for answering a number of questions and sharing information on debates related to the anti-Zionist left. Her input greatly improved the quality of this talk and any mistakes or omissions are solely my responsibility.

[Doug Enaa Greene is a member of the Kasama Project and an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint, Green Left Weekly, Open Media Boston, Cultural Logic and Red Wedge magazine. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is the author of a fothcoming book Specters of Communism on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui from Haymarket Books.]


[1] Quoted in Michel Warschawski, On the Border (Cambridge: South End Press, 2005), p. 27.

[2] Matzpen, “General Declaration by the ISO, 22 March 1968”, Matzpen: The Socialist Organization in Israel. [Accessed August 6, 2014].

[3] Information for the above two paragraphs was gathered from Warschawski 2005, pp. 29-33.

[4] For more on the Black Panthers in Israel see Sami Shalom Chetrit, “The Black Panthers in Israel—the First and Last Social Intifada in Israel,” Manifesta. [Accessed August 7, 2014] and Tikva Hoing-Parnass, False Prophets of Peace: Liberal Zionism and the Struggle for Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), pp. 139-63.

[5] All quotes for this section are taken from Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr, “The Class Structure of Israel,” Matzpen: The Socialist Organization in Israel. [Accessed August 8, 2014].

[6] For an elaboration on the four points see Moshe Machover, “Standing the test of time”, Weekly Worker [Accessed August 6, 2014].

[7] Tikva Honig-Parnass, “One democratic state in historic Palestine: A socialist viewpoint”, International Socialist Review. [Accessed August 6, 2014].

[8] See General Declaration of the ISO (footnote 2).

[9] Moshe Machover, The Case for Hebrew Self-determination, Matzpen: The Socialist Organization in Israel. [Accessed August 6, 2014].

[10] Moshe Machover, Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), p. 25.

[11] See One democratic state in historic Palestine: A socialist viewpoint (footnote 7).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.