I was a student at the London School of Economics (LSE) when the “June War” or the “Six Day War” broke out between Israel and Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, 40 years ago this month.
I had just taken part in the first ever student sit-in at a British university. The campus atmosphere was electric – every major political event was subjected to intense radical, even revolutionary, debate and interpretation.
A major influence was a Marxist group called the International Socialists (IS), the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party.
The founder of IS, Tony Cliff, was born in Palestine into a Zionist family but became an uncompromising revolutionary socialist opponent of the Israeli state. Cliff began spending a lot of time talking to student activists.
I was Jewish and I supported Israel. I was a bit nervous about doing so because the IS line was so distinctly pro-Arab.
Yet I was increasingly attracted to their brand of politics, their enthusiasm for rank and file mass action by students and workers, their internationalism as well as their penetrating analysis of the failure of Communism in the Soviet Union.
But outside the LSE, I thought I was in good company. Sydney Silverman, the left wing MP who also called himself a Marxist, supported Israel.
So did Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous left wing philosopher in France, whose existentialist trilogy Roads to Freedom would haunt the revolutionary student movement.
If supporting Israel was OK for Sartre then it was certainly OK for me. Later I would read how Isaac Deutscher, the great Jewish socialist writer, slammed into Silverman and Sartre.
He was particularly abusive about Silverman. “Scratch a Jewish left winger and you find only a Zionist,” he wrote, in a remark that only one left wing Jew could make to another.
Sartre’s support for Israel touched a raw nerve. This was France’s greatest intellectual who, in the 1950s, had stood almost alone and amid great hostility, in his support for the national liberation struggle of Algeria’s Arab population against France’s colonial rule.
How could he not support the Arabs now? Yet Sartre was pained by his wartime experience.
Vichy France had let the Nazis take tens of thousands of French Jews to the gas chambers. Sartre felt a belated solidarity with the country that had been born out of the ashes of the Holocaust.
Deutscher, though sympathetic, was unimpressed. He wrote, “We should not allow even invocations of Auschwitz to blackmail us into supporting the wrong cause.”
The arguments spilled on to the LSE campus. A grand teach-in was announced on day three or four of the war. It must have lasted from lunchtime until well into the night.
Two of the main speakers were Tony Cliff and Ronnie Kasrils. Kasrils, a mature LSE student, was Jewish and an exiled member of the outlawed South African Communist Party.
Much later we discovered that he helped lead MK, Umkhonto we Sizke, (Spear of the Nation), the armed underground wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Today he is a minister in the South Africa’s ANC government.
Cliff and Kasrils both agreed that socialists had to support Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt in the war. For over 100 years the Arab people had been subjected to Western domination, plunder, racism and contempt.
Zionism was a cynical, calculated Western creation to deepen Western rule, as one of the 20th century’s greatest Western imperialists had made very clear.
“It was good for the British Empire,” Winston Churchill had resoundingly declared. By fighting Israel, Nasser was leading an anti?imperialist war.
But Cliff and Kasrils disagreed about how effectively he would prosecute the war.
They also disagreed about Nasser’s vision of Arab socialism for the Middle East.
This teach-in, for me, operated at two levels. There was the open political argument about Nasser’s revolutionary credentials. They were thrown into doubt by Cliff’s view that Nasser would not mobilise Arab workers and peasants across the Middle East for a mass-based revolutionary war against Israel.
This would have meant taking on the pro-US regimes like Saudi Arabia. Nasser was also far too dependent on the Soviet Union. Cliff had an unerring insight that this would lose Nasser the war.
By contrast, Kasrils pointed to Nasser’s undoubted achievements at land reform and at least partially closing the gap between rich and poor.
He hailed Nasser’s standing throughout the Arab world as an outstanding anti-imperialist leader, proven by his nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 in the teeth of opposition from Britain, France and Israel.
Important though this argument was, I was hearing and seeing something in addition. I saw two fearless revolutionaries, both of Jewish origin, who felt completely at ease with their Jewish identities.
They both took for granted that the creation of the state of Israel was a catastrophic mistake. Its intense hostility to the Arab world, induced by the very act of its creation in its expulsion of nearly one million of the original Palestinian Arab inhabitants, served imperialism’s interests very well.
It turned it into a policeman protecting Western interests, above all, the free flow of cheap oil.
Isaac Deutscher wrote a book called The Non Jewish Jew. He was talking about Baruch Spinoza, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, as well as lesser known Jewish heretics.
They “transcend Jewry but who belong to the Jewish tradition… [who] dwelt on the borders of various civilisations… this enabled them to rise above their times and strike out mentally to wide new horizons.” He could have been describing Cliff and Kasrils.
But they, also, represented a wider Jewish tradition, believers and non believers, which, in every generation, has poured thousands of Jewish men and women into the socialist and communist movements, and other progressive causes.
It is a Jewish humanism, deeply offended by oppression and exploitation, that takes internationalism for granted.
During those six days I learned that Zionism and this Jewish humanism were incompatible. I have never looked back.
John Rose is the author of The Myths of Zionism, available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com. John will be speaking at Marxism 2007, a festival of resistance, on Zionism and anti-Zionism. Go to » www.marxismfestival.org.uk