The Side of Justice

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Review of 'On the Border', Michael Warschawski, Pluto £14.99

This book is half memoir, half political discourse by one of the best known anti-Zionist Israeli activists. As such, it adds to the stock, unfortunately too small, of writings on the progressive left of Israeli politics. Such people as Michael Warschawski were all too rare when I started my political activism in the 1970s. In those days in London I was fortunate enough to come across a group of Israeli Matzpen activists - they formed a tiny unrepresentative proportion of Israeli political thinkers at the time. The position is much better today, but still a minority phenomenon. Warschawski adds immeasurably to the quality if not the quantity of such people.

The book's title is the key to the main preoccupation of the book: the question of borders between states, communities and inside Israeli society, which he understands so well. The author places himself on one such border, between Palestine and Israel. The border concept encapsulates the essential quality of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a reminder also of the physical border that Israel is building to separate the two peoples and contain the Palestinians in a series of ghettos, in an attempt to ward off the inevitable moment when the borders will be torn down by the logic of history and human interaction. Warschawski points to the obvious effect of the wall, which is to enclose the Israelis in a large ghetto as well. What an irony for a people whose history had been defaced by their enforced exclusion from society in the ghettos of Europe.

One of the consequences of the separation wall Israel is building (on Palestinian territory) is that it makes the work of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians difficult. For a man like Warschawski, whose life is dedicated to this collaboration and who has demonstrated it so well in the Alternative Information Centre (AIC), this is doubly difficult. He has been at the centre of many of the initiatives that Israelis and Palestinians have undertaken together against the injustices of Israel's rule.

His account of Matzpen's history is fascinating for all of those interested in progressive movements in Israel, and especially anti-Zionist activism. He describes how in 1962 a small group of Israeli ex-members of the Israeli Communist Party teamed up with older dissident Communists in Israel, some of them Arabs. The result was Matzpen, an organisation that presented for the first time in Israel a radical critique of Zionism (and Arab nationalism). Astonishingly, it called for the democratisation and 'de-Zionisation' of Israel, and its integration into the Arab Middle East. They produced a monthly journal that reflected these ideas, and worked openly with Arab groups and individuals. In time Matzpen developed ties with left movements throughout the world, especially with Arab activists in Europe and North America. The group inspired the young Warschawski, who became a member and adopted its approach in his future work. He goes on to describe his frequent interactions and encounters with Palestinians and the projects they jointly carried out. This was indeed the work of 'socialism without borders'. One Palestinian figure stands out in this, the late Faisal Husseini, who had represented Jerusalem on the Palestinian Legislative Councils and became synonymous with the city's cause.

In Warschawski's view, Husseini believed in real reconciliation between the two sides, and had broken down the psychological borders. He pioneered meetings with Zionists, whose trust he won. He reached out to Israeli society and worked for genuine coexistence, not as a ploy, but as a fair and right end in itself. His faith in a common future for the two peoples is one that the author evidently shares. The Alternative Information Centre, which he and a group of Matzpen and fellow Palestinian activists founded, is testimony to this vision. The centre was set up in order to provide information to the communities 'on each side of the border' about each other. Articles, studies and news analyses were written in Arabic about Israel and in Hebrew about Palestinian life. Palestinians were often ill informed and unable to distinguish the essential from the anecdotal in Israeli politics. Likewise, Israelis, but five minutes away, as he puts it, from the Palestinian centres, knew little about Palestinian life or politics. Mainly, however, the aim of the AIC was to work for a common strategic vision to mobilise Palestinians and Israelis for the same struggle.

Warschawski headed the AIC for many years, and it became an important source of information and analysis for all those of us who wanted to understand what was happening in this crucial area. It was inevitable that it would be targeted by the Israeli secret service and prosecuted. Warschawski was imprisoned and interrogated for 20 days, an experience that he shares with us. His account constantly alternates between the personal and political in a seamless way that adds considerable interest to the subject matter. His intimate knowledge of Israeli politics and the peace movement in Israel is invaluable. This book is important reading for all those who study or want to understand Israeli politics and gain insight into left wing activism. Reviewing the history of the last 40 years, as he does, he could easily have concluded that the omens were not good for a peaceful outcome to a conflict marked by 'blood and hate'. Instead he imbues the book with a spirit of optimism, anticipating that common sense will prevail - the common sense of life over death and openness instead of enclosures - and the conflict will come to an end in a shared future between Israelis and Palestinians. This is heartening for those of us who believe in a single state of Israel/Palestine. Such a vision may be fanciful, but the alternative is, as he puts it, barbarism.


Ghada Karmi is currently writing a book on the one-state solution.