An Israeli Anti-Zionist Memoir: On the Border

— Larry Hochman

On the Border
by Michael Warschawski
translated by Levi Laub
Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005, 228 pages + xv, $17 paperback
[First published in French as Sur la Frontière, Editions Stock, 2002.]

MICHEL WARSCHAWSKI HAS written a richly deserved prize winning book On the Border. Warschawski, director of the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem and a well known anti-Zionist activist, first came to Israel from France before the1967 war, to study at a religious-Zionist Talmudic academy. He is a comrade and the husband of noted Israeli civil rights lawyer Lea Tsemel.

This book focuses less on the all too familiar daily horrors perpetrated on the Palestinians than on the need for the “left” to create “an Israeli beyond the Zionist context” to replace the “ugly Israeli.” Warschawski is also the author of the recently published Toward An Open Tomb. The Crisis of Israeli Society (Monthly Review Press, 2004; reviewed in ATC 113, November–December 2004).

The deterioration of the Israeli Zionist left, primarily the party MAPAM and its Hashomer Hatzair (HH) kibbutz base, is not a recent phenomenon. Warschawski dates the left’s abandonment of “democratic principles and socialist values” to the “hysterical nationalism” engendered by the 1967 war. (1)

In March 1968, 88 persons, including MAPAM kibbutz members Aaron Cohen and Ilan Shaliff, signed a Manifesto Against Repression in regard to the occupied territories. Cohen, an orientalist scholar and member of the national leadership of MAPAM, was threatened with expulsion or a career-ending assignment of 10 hours a day work in the wheat fields. Cohen recanted in a mea culpa in Davar, no less, the organ of Ben Gurion’s centrist Labor Party:

“I was convinced by the arguments of my comrades [in MAPAM] ... [that] in the present circumstances of Israel’s struggle for its security and its existence ... [my signing] was a big mistake...from which I must learn some lessons.” (Quoted 22)

Shaliff, from Kibbutz Negba, refused to make a Moscow purge trial like recantation and was expelled because his positions were “an immense affront to the living and the dead, and to the army in particular.” When the expulsion was postponed by a court appeal, the local MAPAM organ wrote:

“Attention! ... [our] decision takes precedence over any external law ... The time has come to put him in quarantine ... We ask our comrades: not to talk to him — to stay away from him — to not sit down next to him in the dining room and to leave if he sits down. To those sensitive souls amongst us, allow us to remind you that it is in the interest of us all that we are taking these disagreeable measures. So don’t stand in our way!” (23)

Warschawski notes that Shaliff was beaten up several times, “in the name of socialism and friendship among the peoples, of course,” mocking a MAPAM slogan.”

Joining Matzpen

he events of 1967 — especially observing at first hand the humiliation inflicted on Palestinians under occupation — led Warschawski to abandon his religiosity, though not what he regards as Judaism’s salutary underlying principles. He joined Matzpen, a kind of Israeli New Left, Trotskyist-influenced and anti-Zionist movement. A Matzpen manifesto proclaimed that:

“A viable solution demands the transformation of Israel into a normal country, that is a state for all its residents as well as the repatriation of the Palestinians to their country.” (Quoted, 27)

Matzpen, influential with a segment of Palestinian youth in Israel, distinguished itself from the Israeli Communist Party which defined itself as an “Israeli patriotic party” and limited itself to the fight for civil rights in the Jewish state. (When Matzpen advocated a “socialism without borders” many of its Palestinian activists subsequently opted for a radical nationalism.)

Some Matzpen members spoke in kibbutzim, reminding them that their “socialism” had been built on the ruins of Arab villages, and were received with hatred. Early on, Matzpen focused on binational, socialist propaganda; later on protests, civil disobedience and confrontation.

An internal debate occurred in Matzpen. For one strain, Warschawski summarizes, “the entire Israeli community was a society of settlers, and only through ‘de-Israelization’ and integration into the Palestinian nationality could it legitimize its existence in Palestine.” Warschawski and other comrades did not share this analysis, believing instead that “Israeli society was in fact the product of a colonial process (but) a nation had been created, and even sharper contradictions would sooner or later assert themselves” around class, national, anti-war and anti-clerical issues. (51) This is a belief this reviewer does not find fully persuasive.

Making Connections

Warschawski and his comrades made connections with a range of Palestinian intellectuals and activists. They also engaged in dialogue with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist organization of the Palestinian resistance.

For Israeli Jews outside far-left political circles, direct contact with Palestinian militants in refugee camps “was a radicalizing factor for some, for others it was a pretext to distance themselves from the struggle against the occupation.” (62)

On the Border is a timely and valuable contribution to understanding how Israel’s colonial attitudes have developed over the last half century. A few of his compatriots, including Tsemel, struggled to “abolish the border” in their personal relations with Palestinians. The difficult problem, Warschawski says, is:

“to be conscious of colonial domination that ties us to the Other in order ... to free oneself from it. Then, one must be able to listen to the Other ... demonstrate empathy for their suffering, resentments, and reluctance to trust those who belong to the enemy camp ... [One must avoid] a colonial and paternalistic rapport ... flattery and self-denial.” (64)

Warschawski also cogently observes that “A tiny minority of Israelis give way to self flagellation,” sentiments Palestine advocates should ponder. Many claim to support the Palestinian struggle, but then lay out for them what to do, telling them which of their stolen rights must not be negotiable no matter the continuing suffering (see 138–39).

Zionism has made friendship between the two communities improbable. “Friendship ... must be based on common lives, common experiences, and common problems,” yet Jewish and Palestinian lives are “radically different and completely disconnected.” (65)

For example, he states that Hanan Ashrawi uses the word “friendship” for an Israeli Jew only when referring to Lea Tsemel. To invoke his central theme, “the border is a place of struggle from which camaraderie can emerge, but the space for real closeness is extremely limited.” (66)

Noting that prison is one of the rare places where Palestinians and Israelis can “rub shoulders and get to know each other ... [detained Jews] can help [the Arab detainees] understand the Israeli mentality, the weakness hidden behind the apparent power, the fears and fantasies that inhabit the collective unconscious.” (69)

Warschawski speaks at some length about his attorney wife Lea Tsemel. Since the Israeli Communist Party barred its lawyer, Felicia Langer, from representing Arabs implicated in attacks against civilians, Tsemel pleaded most of the cases in the 1970s and ’80s. He references a book by David Grossman, Yellow Wind. Perusing that book, this reviewer found:

“When Lea Tsemel arrives at the parking lot opposite the military court in Nablus, her clients pounce on her car, besiege her in fear ... thirsty for the news she brings. Her office in East Jerusalem, in a broken house with a shattered roof ... teems with villagers ... She is a small woman, always smiling, resolute in her speech, most extreme in her opinions, sympathetic and honest. She conducts several conversations at once with all those massed around her, speaking with them in excellent Arabic with an unmistakable Jewish Ashkenazi accent, chain smoking, arguing over the telephone with police investigators ... curses ... puts on glasses missing one sidepiece, sets out to Nablus or Ramallah ... In her relations with Arabs there is something you don’t come across very often — straightforwardness and equality, without a trace of sanctimony; she places herself neither above nor below her clients, and there is no soft and self effacing paternalism. Very rare.” (Grossman, 78–9)

Against the Iron Fist

Accused of supporting terrorist operations against civilians, Warschawski replies that:

“(T)errorism is the weapon of the weak when there are no other means of making oneself heard; that the responsibility falls on those who perpetuate the occupation and repression, pushing the Palestinians to resist by all means at their disposal; that the Israeli government, responsible for so many not competent to judge the forms of struggle adopted by those whom it oppresses ... if I were a Palestinian I would have a lot to say about the political and ethical propriety of a whole series of tactical choices made by the PLO. But as an Israeli I have chosen not to judge ... What right have I got to demand that he find less bloody means of struggle, and what can I offer him in its place?” (90–91)

After the invasion of Lebanon, Warschawski helped form the Committee Against the War in Lebanon, which set in motion the first protests that reached a climax when tens (some say hundreds) of thousands of Israelis demonstrated against the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. A few years later came the “Committee Against the Iron Fist,” defense minister Rabin’s characterization of how he would crush Palestinian resistance. Ultimately Warschawski was charged with and tried for being the “initiator of the Intifada,” however absurdly, the colonial mindset being that only a Jew had the acumen to accomplish this.

In the late 1980s, comrades from Matzpen and some Palestinian activists of the non Matzpen left created the Alternative Information Center (AIC). “Since the Israeli media had long ago lost interest in what was happening in the occupied territories, our news quickly filled a void [with reports on] torture, the systematic demolition of houses and administrative detentions ...” (110)

AIC had “chosen to create a new arena of struggle, but also of life that transcended community boundaries.” AIC believed in internationalism which, in context as their adherents saw it, meant “an uncompromising struggle for Palestinian national liberation.” In the same vein, Warschawski instructs that: “When one is on the border, it is necessary to have the courage to hear the Other as he really is, to understand him without paternalistic condescension.”

The AIC was closed for a period in 1987 because of ostensible “links to a terrorist organization: Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.” Warschawski was arrested and put in solitary for 15 days — “the hardest days of my life ... I almost thought I was losing my mind ... Lea kept telling me that they do not torture Jews.” (His sentence was 30 months, 20 in jail, later reduced, on a conviction for printing a pamphlet advising activists on how to resist torture under interrogation.)

Right and Left Colonizers

In speaking of the “left wing colonizer,” to which he devotes an entire chapter (131–39), Warschawski has harsh words: “The left Zionist must manage a never ending schizophrenia that is not only ideological but existential. This requires him to provide a rationale for everything he does and to lie to himself constantly ...” Further, he writes:

“The left Zionist 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. That is why his discourse is often more segregationist than that of some right wing currents.”

Nor does he spare the far-left:

“(T)he anti-Zionist activist often knows, better than the Palestinian, what’s best for him. He has read Lenin and Bauer, sometimes even Fanon and Cesaire, and that training gives him the authority to understand what is right and what is wrong ... Of course he supports the Palestinian struggle but it is more of an abstract struggle, not the real unfolding battle, because that one is not left wing enough, or too nationalist, or not nationalist enough ... Although he recognizes the right to self-determination ... the far left colonizer does not recognize ... the Palestinian national movement as it is ... He has a tendency to fashion the colonized in his own image, namely that of a European revolutionary ready to sacrifice every single Palestinian in order to obtain his own utopia ... he will not give it all the support that it has the right to expect from those who believe in anti-colonialism and the right of the colonized to self-determination (which is to say, the right to decide for themselves, including the right to make the compromises they judge necessary).”

The response of a Palestinian militant to an Israeli militant pedantically explaining “a lesson to her students, that accepting a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was pure and simple treason” is: “Why do you take it upon yourself to refuse us an independent state, even a tiny one, in less than 22% of our national territory? Are you going to endure fifty more years of occupation and violence?” (138–39)

The Oslo Debacle

Regarding the 1993 Oslo accords, Warschawski writes: “For the Israeli government as well as for the overwhelming majority of the Israeli population, the Oslo Declaration of Principles was welcome because its hidden message was the promise of separation — a separation that, in their dreams, had replaced the expulsion of the Palestinians.” (147–48)

Nonetheless, he recalls, Oslo “marked an historic turning point in the attitude of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel towards the Palestinians.” Despite reservations, “many of us were nonetheless — moderately — optimistic.” (145)

This was over-optimism in the opinion of this reviewer, and also of Warschawski in retrospect. As events turned out, “separation” led to ethnic cleansing, the closure of separate Palestinian zones, a closure that produced “not a border but a prison.” He continues:

“The concept of a border implies a minimum of reciprocity, each side being able to decide at any given moment who comes in and who goes out. It implies negotiating with the other side the procedures, conditions, indeed the numbers allowed to enter its own territory. The closure is totally different: it is forced on the Palestinians by the Israelis, who decide unilaterally who enters and who leaves, not only to the Israeli territory but to the Palestinian territory as well. The closure imposes separation on the Palestinians, and a separation imposed unilaterally is called apartheid in Dutch.” (151)

On the last gasp of the “peace process,” without his usual elaboration he writes:

”(N)egotiations were renewed at Taba where the Americans offered entirely new proposals that would have led to real progress. For a variety of reasons, the Taba talks failed to change the course of events. The Oslo process was buried for good and, with it, what the Americans had called the ‘window of opportunity’ was closed.” (152)

An explanation would have been useful. Perhaps Warschawski, with so much to say, packs too much into just over 200 pages.

Conflicted Identities

The book’s final portion touches quickly on a number of important items. Israel opposed Austria’s Jewish Chancellor Kreisky’s policy of free emigration of Soviet Jews in transit, 90% of whom opted to go West. At the Malta summit the United States and Israel pushed through an agreement that Soviet Jewish emigrants could only depart to Bucharest, and thence to Tel Aviv, thus becoming “Zionists by default.” (155)

Oriental Jews (a better term is Mizrahim), Warschawski argues convincingly, support the rightists not because of the ideology of greater Israel and the settlements, but out of a desire to give Israel “a more pronounced Jewish character” in the sense they understand.

Moroccan Jews liked Begin because he attended synagogue and was not overtly contemptuous of them. The Yemenis have not forgotten that a Labor government took their children to be adopted by Ashkenazis. The Iraqis have not forgotten that a Labor government greeted them with DDT sprays. Warschawski recalls “the kibbutzniks of Hashomer Hatzair and the activists of the League Against Religious Coercion who came on Saturdays” to the Mea Shearim orthodox section of Jerusalem “to beat up the zealots.” (172) (2)

Warschawski regards the “political fault line” as a social and cultural divide between the comfortable participants in “neoliberal globalization” and “liberal market modernism,” and the “trampled upon” traditionalist Oriental Jews with whom he feels more sympathy despite his secularism. Always the “border person,” Warschawski states:

“Yet we have to make the difficult choice of not choosing between these two deadly perspectives. We must engage simultaneously in a struggle against those who want to make Israel the advance post of the new neoliberal crusade against the nations of the Middle East and those who want to imprison it within an armed ghetto, led by the rabbis of a new Messianism, in which fundamentalism and nationalism reinforce each other.” (169)

Yet another secular and liberal group is described as “trying to preserve a certain kind of Israel [and] are caught up in insurmountable contradictions ... They want to be open to the world, but they dread an opening to the Arab world around them and would prefer to seal it off ... They want peace but are incapable of getting rid of their colonial mentality, so they regard the Orient in which they live and with which they must come to terms with a mixture of fear and arrogance. They have chosen modernity, secularism and worldliness, but they remain passionately attached to a traditionalist and religious discourse without which the very idea of a Jewish State loses all meaning.”

Calling for a “cultural revolution ... to move from a state of domination to one of peace,” and for a “plea for forgiveness for the crimes committed,” Warschawski writes:

“Israel’s only future lies in the acceptance of its Middle Eastern reality and its integration into the surrounding Arab world. A voluntary integration requires above all an opening to the Other as an equal and a partner in building a future where the security and well being of the one is dependent on [that] of the other ... The decision to settle in a place where another people has its roots, leads to two and only two alternatives: first, exclusion and expulsion, which branded more than a century of Zionism and which made conflict inevitable; and second, integration and inclusion, the way of peace and coexistence. The [latter] choice is in fact the only choice. In the end, without it there will be no Jewish existence in the Arab World.” (206–07)

This reviewer would add that Israel cannot support its Western standard of living without continuous massive Jewish and American governmental subsidy and, for a Jewish presence to survive in the long run, must forgo both such aid and its product — an artificially high living standard.

In conclusion, Warschawski states:

“The border person is one whose identity is forged in ... a permanent interaction with his neighbors. It is an identity that is pluralistic, open and mixed. He lives on the border, but he doesn’t like borders, which are for him an obstacle and a barrier to be crossed. ‘He reveals his Jewish identity,’ wrote George Steiner about Trotsky, ‘by his instinctive devotion to internationalism, by his personal and ideological contempt for borders.’” (212) (3)



  1. This reviewer, who spent his youth in the HH movement, a then Marxist, binationalist secular Zionist organization, and lived in a kibbutz in 1951, dates the deterioration as early as 1951. The decision by the HH kibbutzim to hire outside labor, Jewish only, was a transformative watershed. The HH kibbutz had been founded on the ideal of self work and self “emancipation” from the Jewish middle class status in the diaspora. When Jewish labor became unavailable or too dear, Arab labor was hired, and after the first Intifada, human imports from South Korea, Bangladesh and elsewhere were substituted. Another black hole for the paper thin ideology of “binationalism” was the creation of the fifth American kibbutz, Sasa, in 1949, on the land of Arab villages from which the Palestinians were removed at gunpoint, an event hidden from the general membership. The veil of commitment to socialism was definitively lifted after the 1956 colonial Suez war when the spokesman and UN correspondent for the HH organ Al Hamishmar, Richard Jaffe, euphorically proclaimed to a New York gathering of HH’s support group, Americans for Progressive Israel, that “Ben Gurion was right, we were wrong.” Warschawski recounts that in 1967 Meir Yaari, one of the founders of HH and the kibbutz umbrella organization, threateningly stated: “The activists of Matzpen [an Arab Jewish, binationalist Marxist group] have good reason not to emerge from their clandestinity or to show themselves in broad daylight ...” (28)
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  2. Warschawski is describing incidents he witnessed in Jerusalem as a yeshiva student, prior to the 1967 war, which repelled him from the Zionist left. This reviewer had a contrary experience while passing through Mea Shearim on a sabbath in 1951, when his bus was pelted with rocks from the ultra orthodox.
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  3. In keeping with Warschawski’s perspective is the artistry of Leon Rosselson, an extraordinary British Jewish radical songwriter and singer. In My Father’s Jewish World he writes:

    “It’s not a nation. Not a religion/ This Jewish spirit is still unbroken ... It’s like the spark that signals rebellion... [His father] read the books of Jewish rebels like Spinoza ... He loved the Yiddish stories and their humor/ The humor born from poverty and pain ... But now my father’s Jewish world has gone forever ... And I wonder what to me his Jewish legacy has been ...

    “That precious strand of Jewishness that challenges authority/ And dares to stand against the powers that be/ Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg, Bar Kochba/ The Jewish anarchists and socialists who fought to free the poor/ The ones who meet injustices with anger ... Who defend the weak against the strong/ It’s for these rebel Jews I sing my song.”

    For Rosselson, Jewishness today means nothing less and nothing more than supporting the oppressed of the world. Warschawski’s book embraces that concept.
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ATC 118, September–October 2005