On Ukraine, Israel’s Communists Choose Not to Choose

Some left-wing politicians are reluctant to condemn Russia’s invasion because of deep historic links between the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Israel.

Joshua Leifer
March 31, 2022

A truck with the faces of Soviet Communist leaders Lenin and Stalin at the labor day parade held in Tel Aviv, May 1st, 1949.

Pinn Hans/Israeli Government Press Office.

Last week, Ofer Cassif and Aida Touma-Sliman, two members of the Knesset from Hadash—the Arab-Jewish socialist political coalition—declined to attend Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to Israeli parliamentarians, which was also broadcast in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square. In a tweet, Cassif explained his reasoning: “I don’t take sides in a needless war that harms innocent civilians, strengthens people in power and enriches the lords of war. I do not support nationalists and persecutors of the communists in Ukraine, and no, neither do I support Putin and the Russian communist-hating nationalists. No to war—yes to peace.” Cassif and Touma-Sliman were widely criticized for their position, which seemed to put the left-wing stalwarts in the same camp as the Israeli right, much of which has also attempted to avoid taking sides in the war in Ukraine.

The MKs from Hadash are among the most dogged opponents of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; to many, their at best equivocal condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed at odds with their vocal critiques of militarism and state violence. But this is not the first time that Israel’s anti-imperialists have faced what they perceived as an unenviable choice. Since the Syrian uprising in 2011, Hadash—and the Communist Party (MAKI) that forms a central component of it—has attempted to walk an uneasy line between opposing Western intervention and Islamist militancy and supporting the brutal (and Russian-backed) Assad regime.

To understand the broader history of the Israeli left’s relationship to Russia, the Soviet Union, and anti-imperialist politics in the Middle East, for this week’s newsletter I spoke with Joel Beinin, professor emeritus of history and Middle East Studies at Stanford University, and an authority on social movements, political economy, and the left in Egypt, Palestine, and Israel. Beinin is the author of many books, including The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora; Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954; and Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965. Beinin himself was involved in left-wing politics in Israel during the 1970s as a member of SIACH (the Hebrew acronym for “Israeli New Left”). We discussed the rich and complex legacy of communist politics in Israel, the meaning of the Soviet Union during the early decades of the Israeli state, and the current state of the Israeli left. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Joshua Leifer: Why do you think the Hadash MKs felt they needed to make this kind of statement? Surely, they knew how unpopular this would be.

Joel Beinin: First, to understand this fully—Hadash is not a party. It’s an electoral front in which the Communist Party of Israel is the single most important element, and if I’m not mistaken, Cassif and Touma-Sliman are both members. So not all Hadash members would necessarily take the same stand that they did. The Communist Party of Israel is a very old party. Its roots go all the way back to what was an all-Jewish Communist Party, established in the early 1920s, in British Mandate Palestine. For that party, loyalty to the Soviet Union—and residually, to Russia, even though the Party could easily have broken that plank when the Soviet Union collapsed—has always been a very central ideological element.

I think it’s fair to say that the Communist Party of Israel, historically, was one of the most dogmatic in the world in terms of its pro-Sovietism. This ideological commitment played a very important role in what became a binational party by the 1930s, when substantial numbers of Arab members joined; the party would have said that pro-Sovietism tempered both Arab nationalism and Zionism. The argument was that the party’s commitment to the line of the Third International when it existed, then the Cominform, kept the party united until it split, in 1965, into two parties: MAKI (the acronym for the Communist Party of Israel) which was the all-Jewish faction, and RAKAH (the New Communist List), which was predominantly Arab. But there were always Jewish members of RAKAH, and they made sure throughout their existence to keep a Jew high enough on their parliamentary electoral list to be elected to the Knesset. In 1977, Hadash—in Hebrew, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality—was formed as an alliance between RAKAH, the Israeli Black Panthers, and other left forces, including SHASI (Israeli Socialist Left). Eventually, in 1989, by which point the old MAKI had totally disappeared from the scene, RAKAH reclaimed the party name, MAKI, which today is the only Communist Party in Israel.

JL: How did the two Israeli communist parties maintain their relationship and claim to Sovietism during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union became, in different and sometimes ambivalent ways, a backer of some of Israel’s adversaries—whether different Palestinian militant factions or certain Arab nationalist groupings?

JB: The Soviet alliance with Syria and Egypt in the 1960s helped propel the split. The faction that became MAKI dissented privately at first, but after the split it openly dissented from Soviet policy. Following the 1967 war, it joined the Israeli national consensus on security issues, and despite maintaining the name for another several years until its collapse, it was no longer a Communist Party in any significant way. RAKAH—today, the Communist Party of Israel—was totally comfortable with the Soviet Union’s regional position. It argued that, theoretically, the Arab Socialist regimes—which is to say, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, and South Yemen, after it won independence from Britain—were the leading anti-imperialist forces in the region. You can imagine that that was a pretty unpopular position in Israel. Consequently, RAKAH’s membership, after the 1967 War, became almost entirely Arab. There were a few Jews who remained there, but most of them left either to new political formations that we could characterize as “New Left,” very much influenced by the global New Left, and by new immigrants who had come from North America or South America or France and had participated in student movement politics there.

JL: How does Matzpen (the Israeli Socialist Organization), which some of our readers might have heard of, fit into this story?

JB: Matzpen is actually a little bit older and more homegrown. Matzpen split from the Communist Party when it was still united in 1962. It did not go along with the total pro-Soviet package, but its main critique of the Communist Party when it was first formed was about the necessity to critique Zionism as an ideology. Even today, the Communist Party and Hadash adopt a perspective which might be called non-Zionist. That is to say: the Soviet Union voted for the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, which established the State of Israel. And while the Soviet Union, until that vote, had favored a binational state and argued that Zionism was an ally of British imperialism, at a point where it became impossible to envision a single state, the Soviet Union supported partition. For Communists, that meant that Israel is a legitimate state and that the Jewish people who live in Mandate Palestine specifically have the right to self-determination—as opposed to Jews worldwide. That’s the distinction between Zionism, which conceives of the State of Israel as the expression of the worldwide Jewish people’s right to self-determination, and non-Zionism, which recognizes the legitimacy of the State of Israel in the terms that the Soviet Union approved of it in 1947. We should recall that it was arms from the Soviet bloc, specifically Czechoslovakia, that made it possible for Israel to win the 1948 war. The Soviet Union was quite popular in Israel, and David Ben-Gurion had to work hard to pull Israel entirely into the American camp during the Cold War. In response, Matzpen argued that for Israel to become part of a socialist, anti-imperialist Middle East, it was necessary to critique Zionism as an ideology, which the Communist Party and the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality have never done.

The New Left group that I was actually referring to was called Israeli New Left (in Hebrew, SIACH)—a formation of students from the kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair, who were studying mainly at Tel Aviv University, along with people who had been in the MAKI faction after the 1965 split, but who rejected the total embrace of the Israeli consensus on national security doctrine—e.g., some of them challenged the idea that the 1967 war was a defensive war forced on Israel. Today, we know through historical research that was not true. But it was harder to make those arguments back then without access to official documents that have since been declassified. Other components in SIACH were people like myself—new immigrants from the United States, France, or Latin America who had participated in New Left organizations or even feminist organizations in those countries and brought that to Israel.

JL: To return to the Communist Party of Israel today and its relationship to geopolitics—one common criticism of the Party is that it tolerates support for the Assad regime in Syria, and for alignment with other authoritarian, secularist Arab leaders, and that this has made it a poor arbiter of progressive politics and also limited its electoral appeal. Is there truth to that?

JB: I would say more than a tolerance. MAKI supported the Assad regime. Now, there were differences in Hadash over that. In terms of public statements, the secretary general of MAKI spoke out in support of Assad in 2016; the secretary general of Hadash did not. Part of the complication here is that the left means something different in Israel than anywhere else in the world. In Israel, “left” refers to how willing you are to make some accommodation with the Palestinians, and by that criteria, what you think of the Assad regime is beside the point. Of course, when it comes to the question of what the progressive forces in the region are, I, for one, would not count the Assad regime among them, or any of the governments that are legacies of Arab socialism and the pan-Arab nationalism of the 1960s—clearly not Egypt, not Algeria, and not Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Nevertheless, the Communist Party and Hadash persist in representing a major part of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. They have a very substantial history of literary accomplishments. Emile Habibi was a leading member of the party, a member of the Knesset, and one of the most accomplished Palestinian novelists. The poets Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Tawfiq Zayyad were all members of the Communist Party. If you are a literary person, that’s one of the places you go. Second, it’s a party in which Arab and Jewish members are fully equals—the only one in Israel. If you believe in Arab-Jewish joint struggle, that’s a place you would consider going. A third reason is that it’s secular. Boys and girls go to summer camps together. On top of that, if you’re a good student, you might still get sent to Moscow, or one of the other former Soviet Bloc countries, for medical school or other educational opportunities—this is a practice that has been going on for a long time.

JL: I’m glad you brought up students and the younger generation, because I was going to ask how this politics gets transmitted down to younger generations, since it’s been three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

JB: No one openly defends the uglier aspects of Stalinism. But there’s a narrative about how Stalinism was necessary to create a society that could withstand the Nazi onslaught. After all, the Soviet Union was surrounded by enemies who had in fact invaded during the Russian Civil War to try to overturn the regime.

JL: And on top of that, part of the Soviet mythology of World War II is that it was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz and defeated the Nazis. I imagine that leads to a memory culture within the party that contributes to a reluctance to openly criticize Putin.

JB: I think that is probably the case. But it’s also true—the Soviet Union did liberate Auschwitz. The fact is that the Stalinist regime was utterly repressive and authoritarian and unsavory in a dozen ways. Still, you can’t take away from it that the Soviet Union paid the biggest price for defeating Nazism. And, of course, that’s a factor that Putin is willing to use today to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

JL: So if you take all these factors together—World War II, Holocaust memory, the role of the Soviet Union in enabling the creation of State of Israel, Soviet support for Arab liberation movements, and the long legacy of Palestinian–East European educational exchange—it sounds like a very robust culture. And yet at the same time this puts the party and its base in a very strange position, because the other people who are reluctant to criticize Putin are the left’s most dogged enemies—Netanyahu’s supporters and the broader right. It’s a strange realignment on this issue.

JB: In this situation, I’m not sure of the position of the base of the party. I have friends and students in Israel, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who grew up in the party or Hadash, and who are not very happy with any of this. But where should they go politically? They are certainly not going to be joining Mansour Abbas’s Islamist party, or Ahmed Tibi’s nationalist party, or Balad, the Arab nationalist party. To the Communist Party of Israel’s credit, it ran the city of Nazareth and several village municipalities with a track record of governing and of delivering at least certain kinds of goods within the limits of what’s possible in Israel that a party like Balad does not have.

JL: Has there been any push for reorienting the party’s geopolitical positions? Some of these historical positions seem like liabilities, electorally and otherwise. Do you have a sense of whether people are asking why the party invests so much in maintaining a certain fidelity to the past, if there might be a penalty in the present or the future?

JB: The Joint List seemed like it would obviate any penalty that might have to be paid, because it was broad and not everybody in the Joint List—certainly not most of the voters—shares these positions. Before Mansour Abbas split from the Joint List, many people thought this was the future of a viable Israeli left. Israeli Jews cannot provide an adequate social base for radical left politics. There’s no material interest for most Jews in ending the occupation or doing anything to improve the living standards and social status of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But people thought the Joint List could be a new formation, which could ultimately expand and include a significant number of Jews in one form or another. There were all sorts of discussions about how that might happen. The last time the Joint List ran as an entirely unified slate, they got 15 seats, and when they were at their best, a significant number of Jews voted for them, maybe as many as 20,000. To some people, that seemed like a way out of this dilemma: the Communist Party has its quirks; the Islamists have their quirks about other things, but we’re all in this together.

​​JL: That was also when Dov Khenin was an MK and kind of had his own constituency of Israeli Jews who voted for him.

JB: Although he represented the current in the party that wanted to break with all of that the pro-Sovietism and many other things as well. [Ed note: Khenin retired from parliamentary politics in 2019 after 12 years as an MK.]

JL: So the left finds itself again in bind, both at home and when it comes to issues abroad. To close, looking back on the longue durée of Israeli communism, is there anything else that’s important to know in order to understand the current moment and how the Communist Party fits into it?

JB: The main thing to grasp is the contradiction between the two pillars of the historic Communist parties—first the Palestine Communist Party, then MAKI, RAKAH, and now MAKI again—which is to say, the contradiction between their ideological dogmatism and, in some cases, their really craven subservience to the Soviet Union, and the fact that the party has nonetheless been the most important force in fighting for the rights of Palestinian citizens. They were a strong force against the military government between 1949 and 1966, when it was imposed on the great majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel. They didn’t, on their own, ever win on any of their big demands, and what they were able to win, they had to win in coalition with others. But they have a very important history as a cultural forum for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and as a force that has struggled for their civil and political rights. So that’s a contradiction. Politics works that way sometimes.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.