The Independent Left in Israel, 1967-1993: Essays in memory of Noam Kaminer (November Books, 2020).

In a review published by Haaretz two months ago, liberal Zionist historian Adam Raz asked himself smugly: Why bother writing about an esoteric group of activists who have achieved so little? The book he discussed, The Independent Left in Israel, 1967-1993, deals with a small group of dissidents who were active in a range of Israeli left-wing movements in the post-1967 period, without managing to change the nature of Israeli society or effectively challenge the increasingly oppressive direction taken by the state.

And yet, this group raised crucial questions of analytical and political value that served to examine core aspects of history, politics, and social relations in Israel/Palestine, and continue to do so today. Among these activists was Noam Kaminer, who was involved in various progressive political initiatives since the 1970s. He died of cancer in 2014, and the collection of essays reviewed here, edited by family members and colleagues, is dedicated to his memory.

Beyond personal tributes and reminiscences, the book offers an overview of campaigns, movements, and debates that have occupied the Israeli left over the last fifty years. It is a testimony to both the vibrancy of radical ideas and to political failure: that we debate basic issues that should have been settled long ago, and we do that from a position of marginality, means that the system the left hoped to undermine is still in place. However, things are not static, progress has been made on some fronts, and it is important to document that for historical reasons and for contemporary purposes, drawing on the lessons of the past.

To appreciate all this, we first need to take a step back and look at the historical context. As was the case in many countries, the radical left emerged in 1960s Israel as part of the revival of left-wing politics in the wake of disillusionment with Soviet-style socialism on the one hand, and the rise of global solidarity with anti-colonial movements on the other. In Israel however, unlike most other places, the left was not defined primarily in relation to positions regarding social and economic issues and the redistribution of resources. Rather, the left/right divide became associated with attitudes towards the Palestinian issue, especially in the aftermath of the 1967 war and the occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Leftists in Israel were those who opposed the occupation, called for Israeli military withdrawal from the territories, protested land confiscations, house demolitions, expulsions and arrests of activists, and supported Palestinian national self-determination. Within that framework, they differed among themselves on the possible and desirable relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, as individuals and as collectives, the meanings and implications of Zionism, colonialism, Arab nationalism, and their consequences for political activism.

Aside from the Israeli Communist Party (Maki), which split in 1965 between a Jewish faction that retained the Party’s name but quickly declined after moving to the Zionist mainstream, and a majority-Arab faction, which adopted the name Rakah (New Communist List), smaller groups emerged in the course of the decade to offer a left-wing perspective. These groups operated from a position of independence from both the Soviet Union and the Israeli state. Two such groups stood out: the Israeli Socialist Organization (known as Matzpen–Compass–its monthly publication), and the New Israeli Left (known by its acronym as Siah). Both groups criticized Israeli policies and practices and sought to align themselves with global progressive forces. Matzpen offered a more radical political and theoretical critique, which gained it much notoriety in the context of the post-1967 Jewish nationalist euphoria. Siah focused less on theory and more on direct extra-parliamentary action and protest on issues of practical and immediate concern.

To varying degrees, both were reviled by the right-wing, mainstream media, and the political establishment, led at the time by the Israeli Labour Party. Matzpen in particular was regarded as being beyond the pale, not only due to its radical position but also its willingness—indeed active efforts—to wash the dirty laundry of Israeli violations of rights in public, both at home and abroad.

The early 1970s brought tensions within these groups to the fore, leading to a series of splits. Differences of theory and organizational practice resulted in breaking Matzpen up into five different groups, two of which continued to use the original name. These differences seem minor in retrospect, and were incomprehensible to observers at the time. However, they did raise a range of issues reflecting debates shaping the global left: the relations between class and national liberation, capitalism and third world movements, mass and armed struggle, and the role of Zionist ideology and practices in relations of domination, and how to confront it effectively.

Siah also underwent fragmentation, but on different grounds, centering on the feasibility of change from within the political establishment. From its inception, it aimed to offer a better mode of political dissent to that of Matzpen, seen as extreme and oriented towards the global scene, thus incapable of reaching Israeli-Jewish public opinion. The challenge for Siah was to find a language that was less offensive to the public yet without losing its critical edge. Forming alliances with more mainstream forces was seen by some members as a way to avoid being driven to the margins and becoming irrelevant. Many of them had come from the ranks of the labor movement, especially its left-wing Mapam (the United Workers Party), and were open to adopting an electoral strategy of working together with other dissidents on the fringes of, but still within, the Israeli consensus. Radical members opposed the turn to parliamentary politics. When the majority gave up on Siah’s independent existence in 1973, some refused to join and created a new organization by the name of Shasi (Israeli Socialist Left). Prominent among them was Reuven Kaminer, father of Noam and a veteran activist who was one of the founders of Siah.

An overview introductory article by two of the book’s editors, Joel Beinin and Matan Kaminer (Noam’s son), identifies key changes in the mode of operation of the left during the period covered in the book. Such changes were the transition from tightly knit organizations such as Matzpen, to open movements organized loosely around broad-based platforms, such as Siah, and then to fronts that unite people from diverse political backgrounds on the basis of a few core demands and goals. Together with this transition, the hard-core left program, traditionally centered on questions of class and nationalism or race, was expanded to include a more explicit focus on previously marginal concerns such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and the environment.

The vanguard party model of a small number of highly committed revolutionaries (better fewer, but better) did not appeal to the constituency targeted by Siah, who were mostly students—before and after compulsory military service—whose activism was in part a response to the disciplinary institutions they were forced to inhabit. However, there was a price to pay for such reluctance to engage in organization—a loss of analytical rigor. Matzpen was big on theory and organization but small on popular appeal. Siah had greater popular support and its structures allowed more participatory involvement—you did not need to be a “professional” activist to take part—but it was weak on critical theory. It is impossible to identify any analytical contributions the movement made, as it never developed a distinct perspective on Zionism, colonialism, Third World nationalism, class and race, and so on. It was flexible on doctrine, which was good for its action-oriented activism, but without leaving much of a trace on left-wing scholarship, theory, or analysis.

Shasi, a hybrid entity, both ideologically and organizationally, operated in a decentralized and non-authoritarian manner, further enhanced by a shift in the way progressive forces organized in the country. A wave of extra-parliamentary protest began in the late 1970s with the Peace Now movement, which was formed to pressure the Begin government to reach a peace agreement with Egypt. The success of this protest opened the way for smaller-scale mobilization on related causes, such as the Committee in Solidarity with Bir Zeit University, the Committee against the War in Lebanon, Yesh Gvul (draft resisters), Mothers against Silence, Women in Black, and others. These movements were organized as single-issue, though related, campaigns, each with a focus on one or a few aspects of the overall condition of occupation, war, and political oppression.

Many activists in more structured organizations, including Shasi and Matzpen, joined such protests as individuals. They found the bigger and more diverse crowds attracted by the new movements a more personally rewarding environment, as well as more politically useful arenas than their own insular enclaves. Inevitably, shifting resources to movements led to the demise of radical left groupuscules. In the course of the 1980s, most of them ceased to operate as distinct entities, although the core thematic issues they addressed continued to shape the movement as a whole.

Zionism was the core issue that served to define the left from its inception. The Palestinian Communist Party of the 1920, then composed mostly of immigrants, rejected Zionism as an ideology but adopted Yishuvism, which derived its name from the Palestine Jewish community. That approach regarded the issues of Jewish immigration, settlement on the land, and institutional build-up as legitimate, as long as they did not involve direct dispossession of Arab peasants and workers. From that perspective, the Zionist movement did engage in colonial practices, but those arriving in Palestine under its flag were not tainted as individuals.

A similar formula, distinguishing ideology from practice, was used decades later by Moshe Sneh, a prominent Zionist leader, when he moved to the left and joined the Communist Party in the 1950s: “aliyah, settlement, security, independence—these are not Zionism.” Post-1948 Israel was different in a crucial respect from Palestine under British rule, however. Jewish immigration and settlement were no longer voluntary activities. They had become policies enforced by a state power that organized mass immigration and land confiscation to displace and replace the indigenous population. This state used military force to remove Palestinians, take away their land, and subject those left behind to social and political marginalization. Zionism as an ideology, in other words, became a legitimizing framework for practices that entrenched the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian refugees and exclusion of survivors as second-class citizens. The ideology and practices could no longer be separated, if they ever could.

The above statement does not have clear implications for political strategy. The rejection of Zionism as an ideology and a set of institutions and practices does not necessitate rejecting Zionists as potential partners in progressive causes. This is because some Zionists (a minority for sure) regard Jews as a national group with the right to self-determination in Israel—as a “Jewish Democratic State”—yet may oppose some Israeli practices as racist, such as the expropriation of land, “targeted assassinations,” suppression of dissent, and the siege on Gaza. Should the focus be on adherence to an abstract ideology or support for concrete practices? How important is the ideological dimension in practical politics? Finally, what is the relationship between Zionism as a movement and its greatest achievement, the State of Israel, its existence and its policies? Could we perhaps bypass the question of Zionism altogether by using concepts such as post-Zionism or a-Zionism?

During the period covered in the book, Israeli anti-Zionists were in no position to be selective about potential partners. They welcomed opportunities to cooperate with people opposed to oppressive state practices, regardless of their stated ideology. Opposition to such cooperation always came from the other side, as pointed out by the veteran Matzpen member, Ehud Ein-Gil.[1] It may be difficult to appreciate this point today, when “Zionist” is used to refer to supporters of Israeli war crimes and violation of rights. In the context of Israeli protest movements however, an explicit rejection of the Zionist label was, and still largely is, a liability. Negotiating the issue was not easy.

The option chosen by Shasi, as discussed by member Ephraim Davidi,[2] was to recognize certain colonial aspects of the Zionist settlement project, historically, and particularly after 1967, without challenging Israel’s existence as a legitimate political entity. Despite its tainted historical origins, the argument went, Israel became a state like all others, and the Jewish majority of its population was a group entitled to national self-determination. Withdrawing from its post-1967 territories, together with granting equality to its Palestinian citizens, and forming a Palestinian state alongside it, would allow Israel to overcome the colonial burden. This position, which became known as the two-state solution (“two states for two peoples”), was then considered radical. It formed the basis for Shasi joining Rakah and civil society forces in 1977, in a new political alliance, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash). It was an initiative undertaken by Palestinian citizens in the wake of a new wave of land expropriations by the state, resulting in the Day of the Land uprising of March 1976 and in enhanced Arab political mobilization. The background for these developments is discussed in Odeh Bisharat’s article in the book.[3]

In contrast to Hadash, radical anti-Zionists saw the two-state solution as deeply flawed. It failed to address the rights of Palestinian refugees, victims of the 1948 Nakba, and it retained Israel as a Jewish-Zionist state in which land, jobs, and social policies were structurally biased in favor of Jews, not only those already living in the country but potential immigrants as well, at the expense of Palestinians. In other words, removing one aspect of the problem (the 1967 occupation) was a necessary but insufficient condition for a solution. It was not a territorial conflict between states which could be resolved by shifting borders, but a colonial condition that could only be resolved by dismantling Zionist structures and policies such as the Law of Return, the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Agency, settlement agencies, and the Histadrut, formed as an exclusionary union to guarantee employment to Jewish immigrants.

Hadash opened its doors to Jews who opposed the occupation and supported equality for all citizens but regarded an explicit rejection of Zionism as a step too far. In particular, it wanted to recruit Mizrahim, socially- and culturally-marginalized Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, as partners in a class alliance that would overcome ethno-national divisions. The Black Panthers, a Mizrahi protest movement of the early 1970s, was guaranteed a place on Hadash’s electoral list even though they brought no support from Jewish constituencies. The bulk of the front’s support, perhaps ninety-five percent of it, came from Palestinian citizens and this remained the case for decades, up to and including the formation of the Joint List in 2015, in which Hadash plays an important role.

For leftist Jews, joining Hadash provided an opportunity to work together with Palestinian activists. Alliances of students of different backgrounds in campus-based campaigns were not uncommon, as discussed by sociologist Lev Grinberg and others,[4] but they did not dismantle the boundaries between them. Palestinians usually organized in Arab Student Committees, cooperating with progressive Jews but keeping their separate structures. The key debates among them set supporters of Rakah (later Hadash) apart from more radical activists, some of whom were affiliated with the Abnaa al-Balad nationalist movement. Cooperation in such alliances meant that the Jewish left effectively gave up on the option of recruiting Arab members directly, and it remained essentially Jewish in composition and perspective.

In addition, the movement was largely restricted to one segment of the Jewish population; relatively well-off Ashkenazim of Central and Eastern European origins, born in Israel or immigrants of similar ethnic origins from the United States of America, France, Argentina and other places. This intra-Jewish dimension was a constant source of critique both from within the left and in opposition to it. Despite a consistent record of support for progressive social policies, the left never managed to attract support from Mizrahim, with the exception of a few Iraqi-Jewish activists and intellectuals who had been affiliated with radical circles before moving en masse to Israel in 1950.

Several articles in the book discuss this issue. Veteran Black Panther Reuven Abergel offers an interesting perspective on the left’s failure to address the socio-economic concerns of marginalized Jews without alienating them culturally and politically.[5] Activists appreciated the help given by Ashkenazi leftists but frequently felt patronized by them and treated as foot soldiers and potential recruits, not as fully-fledged political agents in their own right. Assimilating race and ethnicity into a class discourse is an almost-universal strategy of the left and it never works.

In any event, why should radical Mizrahim have waited for the left to offer them a place at the table instead of charting their own course of action? Some did that of course. Meir Amor tells the story of independent contacts between Mizrahi activists and Palestine Liberation Organization officials in the 1980s, bypassing the usual mediation of Ashkenazi leftists.[6] They found much in common, but the Palestinian side did not understand the thrust of the Mizrahi issue, and regarded it a problem internal to Israeli society, not of concern to outsiders. Interestingly, that initiative involved Palestinians in the diaspora, not in Israel and the Occupied Territories. It was not followed up by the formation of a viable Mizrahi Left alternative that could overcome Ashkenazi limitations in addressing Mizrahi constituencies and establishing links between them and Palestinians. At the intellectual level some such efforts were indeed undertaken, but with no sustained organizational presence. How to break the long-lasting alliance between Mizrahim and the religious-nationalist Jewish right-wing remains the biggest challenge facing the left today.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book, by way of conclusion, is an interview with the well-known progressive journalist Amira Hass, who was involved in her youth with some of the groups mentioned above.[7] For her, the anti-Zionist left was correct in its analysis of the colonial character of Israeli society, but it missed out on a crucial Jewish point. Many settlers were refugees of persecution and the Holocaust (her own family, for example) who found themselves in an impossible situation, with their own survival dependent on the oppression of others. Other sections of the left (such as Shasi who dismissed Zionism as a thing of the past, not a current concern) ignored the Nakba’s centrality to the Palestinian experience. They supported the position of two states for two peoples, which was radical for its time but failed to offer an overall answer to the Palestinian question. The anti-Zionists did offer such an answer and gained the respect of Palestinians, but marginalized themselves at the same time among Jews, and thus remained unable to influence events.

Indeed, from a historical perspective, the influence of the independent left was not quite so marginal after all. Its consistent support for the two-state solution did play a role in shaping public opinion favorably, eventually leading to the Oslo agreements of 1993 (the end point of the book). It is clear now that Oslo was not the breakthrough that was anticipated at the time, and it led, instead, to intensified oppression. The extent to which this could have been seen in advance, not just in retrospect, is a matter for a separate discussion.

On the internal Israeli front, ironically, it is the liberal-left Zionism celebrated by Adam Raz that has become increasingly irrelevant, dropping to its lowest level of support ever, with five percent of the votes in the March 2020 elections. Meanwhile, the Joint List, which most activists and contributors to the book support as a continuation and expansion of their efforts, has surged ahead to become the most powerful voice of the left in the country. Crucially, it is a force led by Palestinians, not by progressive Jews; an important transformation that will shape political mobilization in years to come.

It is in the field of ideas though that the Left has made its real mark. Its analysis was never popular, but many of its elements, Zionism as a colonial project, the Nakba as an ethnic cleansing process, the exclusion of Arabs and Mizrahim as foundational to Israeli society, were rediscovered and widely disseminated. Such issues frequently arose without acknowledgment of their intellectual-activist origins, with the rise of the New Historians of the 1980s and 1990s, and other critical approaches since. The academic and cultural discourses on Palestine in Israeli society have changed, even if the political practices applied towards it have not. The main challenge, of course, is to translate radical analysis into practical politics and to mobilize around that. This is a task the book does not provide ready-made answers for, but the reflections it offers raise the necessary questions for further thought and action.


[1] Matan Kaminer, Joel Beinin, Odeh Bisharat, Arieh Dayan, Anat Matar, Smadar Nehab-Kaminer, Meir Amor, and Carmel Kaminer, The Independent Left in Israel, 1967-1993: Essays in memory of Noam Kaminer (Tel Aviv: November Books, 2020), 191-201.

[2] Ibid, 63-75.

[3] Ibid, 57-61.

[4] Ibid, 89-108.

[5] Ibid, 77-87.

[6] Ibid, 165-189.

[7] Ibid, 203-219.