Tony Cliff

A World to Win

Chapter 1

My childhood

I was born in Palestine on 20 May 1917, at the end of the Ottoman occupation of Palestine and the beginning of the British takeover that lasted for 31 years. At the time of my birth some 95 percent of the country’s people were Arabs, and they continued to be the overwhelming majority for many years to come; in 1945 Arabs made up 68 percent of the population.

I was born to a middle class family. My parents, uncles and aunts were dedicated Zionists. My father and mother came to Palestine from the Russian part of Poland in 1902; one of my uncles came as early as 1888. The political background of my parents was very right wing. I remember seeing a photograph of Tsar Nikolai II meeting a delegation of the Jewish community in Russia led by Banker Gluckstein, blessing the Tsar to overcome his enemies. Banker Gluckstein was my father’s elder brother. Thank heaven I do not believe in predestination, and I do not believe there is a gene for right wing ideas.

My father was a big contractor who built sections of the Hedjaz Railway. His building partner was Chaim Weitzman, the first president of Israel. Friends of my family were among the leading Zionists. Moshe Sharet (later foreign minister), a frequent visitor at our home, was a kind of political teacher to me. When I stayed with my uncle Kalvarisky in Rehavia, David Ben Gurion would sometimes come to ask him for something, or to Paula (his wife) to ask for a folding bed. Dr Hillel Yoffe (a leading Zionist) was another uncle of mine. My family was implanted at the core of the Zionist community. This probably made it more difficult for me to break from Zionism.

The fact that my parents, as well as my uncles and aunts, came from Tsarist Russia, where anti-Semitism was rampant, of course slowed my move away from Zionism. My family, like all families from Europe, in later years suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. I met only a few family members who were exterminated by Hitler, although I heard of many others. One was an aunt who came to visit us in Palestine from Danzig (later called Gdansk) in the mid-1930s. Then there was a daughter of my uncle Kalvarisky, whom I knew very well – she was the same age as my older brother. She married a Dutch Jew with whom she had a child aged five when we met. All three of them were victims of the Holocaust.

Chanie’s family suffered no less, but as she lived in South Africa she had no opportunity to meet them. As a matter of fact there is probably not one Jewish family in Europe or the US which did not have many of its members fall victim to the Holocaust. Oriental, Sephardic and Yemenite Jews were largely not trapped in this way.

It took me a few years to make the transition from being an orthodox Zionist to being a semi-Zionist with a pro-Palestinian position and then to making a complete break with Zionism.

My parents were very hurt when it was recorded in the local paper that my elder brother and I were arrested for distributing anti-Zionist leaflets in 1937. My mother was in tears, but I heard my father reassuring her: ‘He will grow out of it’. It was especially painful to them, as I was the baby of the family, and also had been sickly for many years, so that great attention had been paid to me. I only managed to stand at the age of two and at the age of five I was taken to Vienna to see a rheumatism specialist. After this my health improved a lot.

Different circumstances and events trigger socialist ideas in individuals. A specific issue of oppression can lead an individual to become a critic of existing society. Nobody becomes a socialist because he or she read Marx – the reading of Marx is the result of looking for an explanation for the injustices of society. Similarly the Utopian Socialism of Charles Fourier and Robert Owen – the criticism of class exploitation and oppression, and the aspiration for a classless society – preceded the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels. Every individual goes through a similar experience by first becoming a critic of society and then looking for ways to change it.

The specific spur that pushed me to become a socialist was the wretched conditions of Arab kids that I witnessed. While I was always shod, I saw Arab kids running barefoot all the time. Another issue was that there were no Arab kids in my class at school. It seemed unnatural to me that it should be like that. After all, my own kids, born and educated in England, never came home to tell us there were no English kids in the school (though I would not have been surprised if they said there were no Dutch, Danish or French kids). After all, we live in England. At the age of 13 or 14 I wrote a school essay, as all the kids were asked to do, but the subject of my essay was: ‘It is so sad there are no Arab kids in the school’. The teacher’s comment was short and clear: she wrote, ‘Communist’. I had never dreamt of considering myself a communist until then. For the rest of my life I have felt very grateful to this teacher. I wish I could hug and kiss her.

There was another factor which focused my attention on the issue of the exclusion of Arab kids from the school. There was one small school in the country where Arab and Jewish kids were together. This school came into being and was financed by an uncle of mine, Chaim Margalit-Kalvarisky. He was very well off, being head of Rothschild’s organisation in Palestine. He also founded a minuscule group of liberal Jews and Arabs called Brit Shalom (Peace League). This uncle was the butt of my father’s and mother’s derision as they thought he was mad. He was so single minded that he hardly talked about anything else except peace with the Arabs. When he met Chanie for the first time he did not ask her about anything but barged straight into the subject of peace with the Arabs. Chanie thought there was a great similarity between him and me – both a bit deranged. She said to me, ‘There must be a blood relationship explaining it.’ I told her Kalvarisky was not related by blood but through marriage: he married my father’s sister. His actions probably concentrated my attention on the issue of the exclusion of Arabs from my school even more. I identified myself with the underdogs.

The exclusion of Arabs was not confined to education. They were also excluded from Jewish-owned houses. This segregation meant that throughout the 29 years I lived in Palestine I never lived in a house with Arabs. As a matter of fact the first time I lived with a Palestinian Arab in the same house was in 1947 when I stayed in a small boarding house in Dublin.

Another factor that spurred me to identify with the Palestinians was the name my parents gave me – Ygael (Gluckstein). This was taken from a John Wayne type Zionist hero who murdered a number of Arabs. At the age of 13 I changed my name from Ygael to Ygal. Seeing that in Hebrew there are no vowels but only consonants the two names are spelt in exactly the same way, so it was easy to do. The root of the name Ygal is this: Moses sent 12 spies from the 12 tribes of Israel to go to Canaan to spy out the land. Two said they would like to settle there; ten said they would not. The first of those who did not want to settle was called Ygal.

Closed Zionist economy

The Zionists who emigrated to Palestine at the end of the 19th century wanted its whole population to be Jewish. In South Africa, by contrast, the whites were the capitalists and their hangers-on while the blacks were the workers. In Palestine, with the very low standard of living of the Arabs compared to Europeans, and with widespread open and hidden unemployment, the means of excluding the Arabs was by closing the Jewish labour market to them. There were a number of methods used to achieve this. First, the Jewish National Fund, owner of a big proportion of the land owned by Jews, including a large chunk of Tel Aviv, had a statute that insisted only Jews could be employed on this land.

I remember in 1945 a cafe in Tel Aviv was attacked and almost entirely broken up because of a rumour that there was an Arab working in the kitchen washing the dishes. I also remember, when I was in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem between 1936 and 1939, repeated demonstrations against the vice-chancellor of the university, Dr Magnes. He was a rich American Jew and a liberal, and his crime was that he was the tenant of an Arab landlord. Probably no student of, let us say, the London School of Economics knows or cares whether the vice-chancellor owns his own house or rents it from a Catholic, Protestant or Jewish landlord.

In March 1932 David Ben Gurion, the leader of Mapai, the Party of the Workers of Eretz Israel, and a future prime minister of Israel, made it clear that he was vehemently against the employment of Arab workers by Jews. He said, ‘Nobody must think that we have become reconciled to the existence of non-Jewish labour in the villages. We will not forgo, I say we will not forgo, one place of work in the country. I say to you with full responsibility that it is less shameful to establish a brothel than to evict the Jews from their work on the land of Palestine.’ Do not think that these were mere idle words. Tel Aviv’s numerous brothels could hold their own with the best of them, but there was not a single Arab worker in the town.

In this attitude there was no real distinction between right or left Zionists. The left Zionist socialists of Hashomer Hatzair did not lag behind and there is no doubt that Bentov, one of their leaders, was right in saying, ‘Mapai hasn’t the monopoly over the demand for Jewish labour. We are for maximal expansion of Jewish labour and for its control in the Jewish economy’. [2] Indeed in all the many instances of picketing against

Arab labour there is not a single instance when Hashomer Hatzair did not participate in or at least support the pickets.

The Zionist trade union federation, the Histadrut (General Federation of Hebrew Labour), imposed on all its members two levies: one for the defence of Hebrew labour and one for the defence of the Hebrew product. The Histadrut organised pickets against orchard owners who employed Arab workers, forcing the owners to sack them.

I remember the following incident. It was when Chanie was quite new to the country and she joined me to live just next to the Jewish market in Tel Aviv. One day she saw a young Jewish man walking among the women selling vegetables and eggs, and from time to time he smashed the eggs with his boot or poured paraffin on the vegetables. She asked, ‘What is he doing?’ I explained that he was checking whether the women were Jewish or Arab. If the former, it was alright; if the latter, he used force. Chanie reacted, ‘That’s just like South Africa’, from where she had just come. I replied, ‘It’s worse. In South Africa the blacks are at least employed.’

Chanie arrived in Palestine in June 1945, and we started living together in October of the same year. We were desperately poor and our only income was the pittance earned by Chanie as a part-time English teacher. We rented a room in a huge squalid suburb on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, built on sand dunes with no roads or amenities – something never mentioned in Zionist propaganda. The landlord was a Yemenite from a community known as ‘black Jews’. His wife, aged 25, already had a number of children, had lost all her teeth and was as thin as a rake. On our request for a room to rent the landlord pointed to an empty sand dune. ‘Where’s the room?’ we asked. ‘It’ll be there tomorrow’, he said, and amazingly it was – a tiny room with walls of single brick thickness and floor tiles laid out directly on the sand. When it rained the water flowed underneath the tiles, creating a damp fog which turned our shoes, books and everything else in the room green. Our books were further devoured by mice. Our kitchen was a primus stove, our lighting an Aladdin lamp. The toilet was a communal flush-toilet, considered superior to the traditional floor toilet which was on another dune and did not flush. Our bed was a two and a half foot metal structure donated by the Zionist authorities to all immigrants that sagged right down the middle. It regularly became infested with lice and every week we conducted a louse-burning ceremony with our primus stove ‘to welcome the Sabbath!’

A friend visiting us once leaned on the window and the whole frame came out. This same friend worked in a restaurant and sometimes brought us Wiener schnitzels which were beginning to rot and could not be used for customers. For us this was a treat which we added to our potato, spaghetti and orange diet. Once a month we treated ourselves to a restaurant meal of camel meat, the cheapest type on the menu. In this room I worked on my 400-page book on the Middle East which Chanie translated into English and then typed on an old, almost broken, typewriter. She did this no less than eight times over till it reached its final form.

Chanie’s parents decided to move to Israel from South Africa and we could not possibly let them see our conditions. So we succeeded, at great expense for our limited means, in finding a room consisting of half the boiler room in a tall block of flats. It was six feet wide, enough to accommodate a bed and wardrobe which we were donated. At the foot of the bed was a small table with a side that dropped down to enable the door to open and close. We considered this room luxurious compared to our previous one. However, Chanie’s father nearly fainted when he saw it, and remarked, ‘But my garage is three times the size.’

When mass arrests by the British took place prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, we had to stuff all our illegal papers down the toilet, which refused, in the end, to accommodate our wishes. By good fortune the British soldiers making the arrests did not go into the toilet, and we were released after many hours and Chanie sweet-talking the soldiers in English. This persuaded them to forgo investigation into my status as a wanted person with a summons over my head.

All the comrades lived in this poverty, yet we still made collections to assist our comrades internationally – like for our Italian group fighting their elections. The members’ subscription to the group was a day’s wages a week. This, and the extra collections we made meant members went without meals in order to pay.

While Zionism dug a wide and deep trench to separate Jews from Arabs, imperialism colluded. When the British administration in Palestine did employ both Arabs and Jews to do the same jobs, they paid the Arab workers about a third of what they paid Jewish workers. The policy of ‘divide and rule’ dominated everything, even prison. When I was arrested in September 1939 I was taken to a prison in which there were only Jewish prisoners. The conditions there were not different to those prevailing in Arab prisons. We had to sleep on the floor – 43 of us packed together like sardines – so that at night it was not possible to turn over. At six in the evening we were locked in for 12 hours. A bucket served as a communal lavatory. The place stank. Early in the morning our first job was to delouse ourselves and our blankets. Food came in a large cauldron, and each prisoner had to put his hand in the broth and fish out a piece of meat to eat; after this the broth was poured into each tin bowl. But the conditions improved radically when I was transferred to a new prison. It still contained only Jews, but this time it was within sight of nearby Arab prisoners so that they could compare conditions. Suddenly we got beds, and a lavatory separate from the room we slept in.

The policy of the Labour Zionists towards the Arabs sat awkwardly with their constantly repeated statements of sympathy towards them in the early years of Zionist colonization. Thus in 1915 Ben Gurion wrote:

Under no circumstances must the rights of these inhabitants (i.e., the Arabs) be touched. Only ‘Ghetto-dreamers’ like Zangwill could imagine that Palestine can be given to the Jews in addition to the right to drive the non-Jews out of the country. No state will agree to this. Even if it seemed that this right might be given to us ... the Jews have no justification and no possibility of exercising it. It is not the task of Zionism to drive the present inhabitants out of Palestine; if it had this aim it would merely be a dangerous Utopia, a harmful and reactionary Fata Morgana. [3]

In 1920 Ben Gurion wrote about the fellah, the Arab farmer, and his land as follows, ‘Under no circumstances must the land be touched which belongs to the fellah and which he tills. Those who live from their hands’ toil must not be torn away from their soil, not even for financial compensation’. [4] ‘The fate of the Jewish worker is tied up with that of the Arab one. They will rise together and fall together,’ he said in 1924. [5] Later on, in 1926, he said, ‘The Arab population is an organic insoluble part of Palestine. It is rooted here, it works here and will stay here. Though it is not impossible at the present time to expel great masses of people from a country with the aid of physical force, only lunatics or political quacks could accuse the Jewish people of harbouring such a desire’. [6] Dr Weitzman, president of the World Zionist Organisation and future first president of Israel, said in a speech in London on 11 December 1929, ‘Up till now there has been no case – and I hope there will be none in the future – where an Arab has been ousted from his land, either directly or indirectly.’

If such declarations are of any value, we could even cite Jabotinsky, the representative of the most extreme and greedy Zionist wing, the Revisionists (now the Likud Party), who once declared some of his fundamental principles to be:

Equality of all citizens.

Equal rights must be maintained for all citizens regardless of race, religion, language and class, in all walks of the public life of the country.

In every cabinet where a Jew is prime minister, an Arab will be his deputy and vice versa ... [7]

However, these were merely lullabies that Zionists sang to the Arab population of the country to put them to sleep. The logic of the development of Zionism led to changes over time in the attitude toward the Arabs. The greater the Zionist advance, the more it fed Arab resentment and resistance. This fed back into a deeper and deeper fear of the Arabs among the Jews.

Jewish workers trapped by Zionism

The working class of Palestine was deeply divided between Arabs and Jews. Arabs and Jews used different languages – only a tiny minority of Jewish workers understood Arabic, and an even smaller minority of Arabs understood Hebrew. In a few workplaces there were both Jews and Arabs. Thus of the 5,000 or so railway workers in the early 1940s some four fifths were Arabs and a fifth Jews. The oil refinery in Acre employed both Arabs and Jews, again the majority Arabs. The lowest echelon of the civil service also employed workers from the two communities. But these were exceptions. Some nine tenths of all workers were in segregated workplaces.

One incident warmed my heart, seeing Arab and Jewish workers together. It was one evening at the beginning of the 1940s when I was travelling on a bus from Acre to Haifa. It was full of Arab and Jewish workers from the Acre oil refinery. Among them were two members of our group. They started singing socialist songs in Arabic. One of them followed this by saying, ‘Let us sing in Hebrew for our Jewish brethren.’ And so they did. This was marvellous but, alas, it was like a meteor only briefly lighting up a very dark night.

Ideologically, ‘Zionist socialism’ trapped its supporters, preventing them from making a clear break from chauvinism and imperialism, although some of them very often condemned both.

An illustration of the complexity of Zionist socialism and of the contradictions tearing it apart is the following. When Chanie came to Palestine from South Africa she was a member of the most left wing trend in the Zionist socialist movement – Hashomer Hatzair. They considered themselves Marxists and some described themselves as Trotskyism She joined a kibbutz (collective farm) belonging to the Hashomer Hatzair movement. In the kibbutz there is no private ownership of wealth or private property. Production is collective. Consumption is collective. The rearing of children is done collectively. There is no individual kitchen, etc. The members of the kibbutz saw it as an embryo of a future socialist society. And here there is a paradox. A short while before Chanie arrived the members of the kibbutz faced a nasty test. There were four kibbutzim and four Arab villages in this particular valley, surrounding a stony hill. The kibbutzim all decided to oust the Arabs from their villages which were on land the Jewish National Fund had bought from Arab landlords. They therefore formed a long phalanx at the foot of the hill, picked up stones as they climbed up and threw them at the Arabs on the other side. These Arab tenants had cultivated this land for generations, and they had received nothing at all from their landlords for their land. They fled in fear and the Zionists took over the whole hill. Chanie then decided to find out what the ‘Trotskyists’ in the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim were doing politically, and went round the country to visit them. She found them – mostly, oddly enough, cowherds – fully immersed in the economy and life of their particular kibbutz, and not relating to the Arab workers or peasants at all, or to the political crimes of the Zionists.

A little story shows how enthusiastic but naive I was about my politics at this time. A short while after the ousting of the Arab tenants I was invited to come and speak at this kibbutz. Our group was contacted and asked for a speaker. I arrived at the kibbutz on Friday afternoon, after the end of the working day. A dozen comrades, all from South Africa, came to listen to me. I started speaking at 2pm and went on speaking until 1am. After asking for questions (but allowing no time for them) I then went on speaking till 4am. A few days later Chanie told me the following, ‘I understood Hebrew better than the other comrades but still I couldn’t follow you. You spoke so fast that I only managed to pick out key words like “capitalism”, “socialism”, “Zionism”, “internationalism” and “revolution”. The others didn’t understand anything.’ Disillusioned with the prospects of revolutionary progress through the Kibbutz movement Chanie then left the kibbutz, came to Tel Aviv and we started living together. Probably one of the spurs for her to join me was the wish to understand what I had said at the time! We have been together now for 55 years and she probably still doesn’t know what I said. I certainly don’t remember.

The Zionist socialists were trapped ideologically. They believed that the future belonged to socialism, that in the kibbutz we could see the embryo of a future socialist society (rather than a collective unit of colonists). But in the meantime Arab resistance to Zionist colonisation had to be overcome so they collaborated with Zionist moneybags and rich institutions as well as the British army and police. The Zionist socialists held the Communist Manifesto in one hand and a coloniser’s gun in the other.

Of course there was class conflict within the Jewish community in Palestine. Workers and capitalists did fight round wages and conditions. But the Zionist colonial expansion blunted the class struggle and prevented it from taking the political form of opposition to Zionism and imperialism, and solidarity with the Arab exploited and oppressed.

The contradiction in consciousness of Jewish workers in Palestine arose from the fact that while they were in conflict with the Arabs, at the same time they came from the background of a community with a socialist consciousness. Thus in Poland, where the biggest community of Jews in Europe existed at the time, council elections took place in December 1938 and January 1939 in Warsaw, Lodz, Cracow, Lvov, Vilna and other cities. The Bund, the Jewish socialist workers’ anti-Zionist organisation, received 70 percent of the votes in the Jewish districts. The Bund won 17 out of 20 seats in Warsaw while the Zionists took only one.

Dependence on imperialism

Knowing that they would face resistance from the Palestinians the Zionists were always clear that they needed the help of the imperialist power that had the major influence in Palestine at the time.

On 19 October 1898 Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, went to Constantinople to have an audience with Kaiser Wilhelm. At that time Palestine was in the Ottoman Empire which was a junior partner of Germany. Herzl told the Kaiser that a Zionist settlement in Israel would increase German influence as the centre of Zionism was in Austria, another partner of the German Empire. Herzl also dangled another carrot: ‘I explained that we were taking the Jews away from the revolutionary parties.’

Towards the end of the First World War, when it was clear Britain was going to take over Palestine, the leader of the Zionists at the time, Chaim Weitzmann, contacted the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, getting from him on 2 November 1917 a declaration promising the Jews a homeland in Palestine. Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, explained that the Zionist ‘enterprise was one that blessed him that gave as well as him that took, by forming for England “a little loyal Jewish Ulster” in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.’ The Zionists would be the Orangemen of Palestine.

With the Second World War it became clear that the main power in the Middle East would cease to be Britain and would be the US. Ben Gurion, the Zionist leader at the time, therefore rushed to Washington to cement deals with the US. Israel is now the most reliable satellite of the US. It is not for nothing that Israel gets more economic aid from the US than any other country, even though it is so tiny. It also gets more military aid than any other country in the world.

Zionism is not for sale; it is for hire.

From Zionist socialism to Trotskyism

At the age of 14 I joined the youth of the Zionist social democratic party, Mapai. The party was a very contradictory phenomenon. It dominated the trade unions as well as practically all local councils. The members sincerely believed they were socialists. The left wing of the Zionist socialist movement went as far as publishing in Hebrew many of Marx and Engels’ works. It also published a translation of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and My life.

At the age of 16 I joined the left wing Zionist organisation called Mifleget Poale Zion Vehachugim Hamarksistim b’Eretz Israel – The Party of the Workers of Zion and the Marxist Circles of the Land of Israel (MPZVCMEI).

But the tensions and contradictions in the policy of the organisation put my ideas and beliefs to a very serious test. I shall refer only to one significant event.

In February 1934 a magnificent fight took place in Vienna where workers rose against fascism. Although the workers were defeated Vienna became a torch inspiring the whole international working class movement. The year before, in 1933, the German workers’ movement – the strongest and best organised in the world – had capitulated to the Nazis with hardly a struggle. Throughout the world, I remember, socialists, communists and anti-fascists repeated the slogan ‘Rather Vienna than Berlin’. During those days a meeting was organised by Mapai in Haifa which I attended. The secretary of the Haifa trade union council spoke. He started his speech with the words, ‘Only once in history was there such heroism – the Paris Commune.’ What a brilliant left wing statement. He finished his speech with the words, ‘What we need is workers’ unity.’ When he ended, I heckled and added one word: ‘international’. In Hebrew the adjective comes after the noun, hence my heckling meant ‘international workers’ unity’. Had I shouted ‘Long live the British working class,’ or, ‘Long live the Chinese working class’, I am sure the speaker would not have minded. But in the context of Palestine my words signified unity with Arabs. Three stewards then approached me, two held my arms while the third held fast to my fourth finger and twisted it round and round until he broke it. The Paris Commune is alright, but Arab workers are not.

Being more and more disappointed with the MPZVCMEI a few of us started calling ourselves Trotskyists and acting as a faction inside this organisation. The brilliant writings of Trotsky on Germany facing the Nazi menace came into our hands only after the victory of Hitler. They were crucial in turning us into Trotskyists.

In 1938 we were expelled from MPZVCMEI. The background to the expulsion is quite interesting, throwing a light on the contradictory nature of left centrist organisations. MPZVCMEI was affiliated to the centrist International Bureau of Revolutionary Socialist Unity. As its secretariat was located in London it was known as the London Bureau. Among its members were the Independent Labour Party in Britain, POUM in Spain, the SAP in Germany, and other organisations.

In late 1938 two MPs representing the Independent Labour Party,

Campbell Stephen and John McGovem, came to Palestine. Our party organised a couple of public meetings for them. At the first, in Jerusalem, a very large crowd turned up, probably nearly 1,000. The attraction was the MPs and not our party, which had only a few dozen members in the town. At the end of the meeting the audience stood up to sing the Zionist national anthem, Hatikvah. Our party always refused to rise for this anthem but this time the leaders of the organisation did stand up, probably to hide the fact that the majority of the audience were to the right of us. Everybody on the platform stood up except for me. I represented the youth of the organisation. I was really surprised that neither of the ILP MPs asked me why I did not stand up. At the next public meeting with the ILP MPs, in Haifa, a young member of our faction got up and read a short statement in English against imperialism and Zionism. We thought that now the differences would be clarified. Alas, the leaders of the party were very clever and underhanded, and after the statement was read they stood up and applauded. Probably the British visitors thought that the young man with his poor English simply expressed himself poorly. A few days after the ILP MPs left Palestine to return to Britain our group was expelled for making the above statement.

By the way, eight years later, in 1946, my path crossed that of Campbell Stephen again. I was in Britain, threatened with expulsion from the country. Chanie and I went to the House of Commons to ask him for help. He probably remembered me. Anyhow, practically at the beginning of the discussion he asked me, ‘What do you think is the solution to the situation in Palestine?’ I started speaking of the need to oppose imperialism and Zionism. But he must have been in another stratosphere because he said, ‘Return to the Lord, you the Jews, the martyrs of humanity.’ I though I must have misunderstood as my grasp of the English language was not 100 percent. I asked Chanie in Hebrew, ‘What is he saying?’ She explained the meaning of his words – what a centrist muddle! But he did help me.

In a very short time – over a couple of years – I moved from being a left wing Zionist to becoming a supporter of the Communist Party, i.e. a Stalinist, and then moving on to become a Trotskyist. I did not belong to the Palestine Communist Party as it was an underground party and I found no opportunity to join it.

The events in Germany were crucial to my becoming a Trotskyist.

Prior to Hitler coming to power I accepted the Comintern characterisation of the social democratic parties as ‘social fascists’. When Remmele, leader of the German Communist Party MPs, declared that the coming to power of Hitler would be a transitory event – ‘After Hitler, us!’ – I accepted it. I remember the day after Hitler came to power. Walking in Jerusalem I met youngsters, members of the Zionist social democratic party, Mapai, and I said to them with glee, ‘Hitler finished you. Now it’s the turn of us Communists.’ After a few weeks it became clear to me that the Stalinist theory of ‘social fascism’ was disastrous. It was during this time that I got a few articles written by Trotsky before the rise of Hitler that analysed brilliantly the nature of Nazism and the catastrophe that would ensue if Hitler were victorious. Trotsky called for a united front of all workers’ organisations to stop the Nazis’ advance.

I became a Trotskyist. I never regretted this. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the agony of the break with Stalinism. Stalinism had a huge attraction for people fearful of Hitler. Stalinism was not merely a political movement; it was also a fanatical religious movement. What Marx said about religion – ‘a heart in a heartless world, the sigh of the oppressed, the opium of the people’ – applied to Stalinism at that time. The more defeats the working class movement suffered, the greater was the attachment to Stalinism as a force that could stand up to Hitler in the future. Alas, it was Stalin’s policy that facilitated Hitler’s victories: from ‘social fascism’ to the massive shift to the right with the Popular Front policy in France and Spain, to the Hitler-Stalin pact. Breaking from this power to become a Trotskyist was a very painful experience. To understand the religious aspect of Stalinism I shall mention one incident, when a member of the Palestinian Communist Party got a pair of boots from Russia. He kissed them; they were icons for him.

The short period of my youth – some few months – in which I belonged to Stalinism helped me grasp the strength of the hold Stalin had over his adherents. A rationalist cannot understand the strength of religion with its absurd arguments. He cannot grasp the appeal of religion to the weak and vulnerable facing hostile nature and society. Only power, struggle, can free humanity from religions.

Having been a Trotskyist for the rest of my life I can say, with all honesty, that I have never wavered in my total support of Trotskyism and detestation of Stalinism that caused such catastrophes for humanity.

Arab workers trapped in the camp of feudal reaction

I have already referred to Zionism trapping the Jewish workers of Palestine. A strong and dynamic Arab working class in Palestine could have got rid of the cul-de-sac in which Zionism trapped the Jewish working class. Alas, it was the same Zionist expansion (threatening the Arabs with what was later called ‘ethnic cleansing’) that prevented Arab workers from separating themselves from the most reactionary Arab leaders.

The Zionist colonisation frightened the mass of Arabs. It put their opposition to Zionism at the top of their agenda, making them ready to unite with the feudal landlords and religious parties who preached accommodation with imperialism while aiming to stop Zionist expansion. Naturally the Arab masses had only a pale picture of the impact of the future of this expansion. The ethnic cleansing of the Arabs following the founding of the state of Israel was still to come.

‘The catastrophe’ is the term used by the Palestinians to refer to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Since then, in the three wars between Israel and the Arabs (in 1948, 1967 and 1973), there has been a massive ethnic cleansing pf the Palestinians. Today there are 3.4 million Palestinian refugees, far more than the number of Palestinians remaining in the areas they lived in before. Figures of land ownership testify to their elimination: in 1917 the Jews owned 2.5 percent of the land in the country. In 1948 it rose to 5.7 percent, and today it is about 95 percent in the pre-1967 borders. Now in Israel, where the Palestinians make up some 20 percent of the population (one million out of five), one prominent Palestinian reports, ‘In the 22 universities there is not even one Arab employee, not even a secretary. The electricity company employs 25,000 people, of whom only six are Arabs. We are 20 percent of the population, we have 2.5 percent of the land.’ [8]

The mass of the Palestinian proletariat felt entrapped into facing the strong expansion of Zionist settlement aided and abetted by British imperialism. They were therefore prey to the influence of feudal reaction.

Heading this reactionary trend was the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Emin el-Husseini, the top cleric among the Muslims, and head of a rich land-owning family. He was appointed to his position with the consent of the British authorities. In 1936-39 there was an uprising of the Arabs against the expansion of Jewish settlements. It was brutally repressed by the British army and Zionist volunteers. At the time of these riots A Liwa, the paper of Haj Emin el-Husseini, wrote in a leading article, ‘It is the Jewish influence which has infiltrated into the very heart of British politics in Palestine, that does harm to the authorities and prevents them from doing the duty that human feeling puts upon them’. [9]

Proclamation No.3 of the leadership of the Arab revolt, made on 4 September 1936, says, ‘It is regrettable that Britain suffers this number of casualties in a holy part of the Arab countries, their allies of yesterday and today, in order to serve Zionism and erect a national home for it in Arab Palestine. They were not fighting British interests, as the Arabs do not fight Britain, and do not wish to damage her interests, but fight against the Jewish settlement and Zionist policy alone. If not for these two, the Arabs would live in friendship and peace with the English’. [10]

On 13 December 1931 Al-Jami’a Al-Arabiya, the paper of the Muslim Council of the Husseinis, printed a section of the notorious forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion which ‘proved’ the connections of the Jews with Communism. Similar documents were printed frequently by the same paper and the Arab press in Palestine generally.

This idea of the identity of Zionism and Bolshevism was created to encourage the imperialist ruler to disengage from Zionism. It was given clear expression in a book intended mainly for British readers, especially those connected with the Palestine administration. ‘It is natural that the Arabs should have been irritated by the self-assertion and aggressiveness of these new arrivals and be influenced by the social and Bolshevik principles which they bring with them. A strong Bolshevik element has already established itself in the country and has produced an effect on the population’. [11]

Every reactionary deed done in the world was warmly applauded by the official Arab leaders and newspapers. Thus on 4 April 1935 Al-Jami’a al’Arabiya published an article by Shakib Arselan, a Druze leader in the pay of the Hitler-Mussolini Axis, in which he wrote, ‘We do not forget the praiseworthy stand of the leader of Italy in support of the Arabs at the time he was editor of the paper Popolo D’Italia ... We consider it an honour to meet a great man who today is almost the leading statesman in Europe.’ He goes on to count the benefits

Mussolini accorded Tripoli. On another occasion, in connection with the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, he wrote, ‘We do not need to feel sorry for the Abyssinian government as it has for hundreds of years suppressed the Muslims in its country.’ Have the leaders of any other colonial national movement reached greater depths of degradation as to support an imperialist war against another colonial people?

In the same issue of Al-Jami’a al-Arabiya (4 April 1935) an article was published called ‘Islam and the Jews’ written by the English Muslim Dr Khaled Sheldrick, in which, inter alia, he says, ‘Hitler saved Germany from the yoke of Jewish capitalists... Germany is today stepping on the path of progress... If the success of this movement continues, the other countries will follow in its footsteps ...’

The same paper constantly printed anti-Semitic news from the English paper the Fascist, and the same ideas were clearly and unequivocally repeated on innumerable occasions by all the Arab national leaders in Palestine. [12] The Franco revolt was warmly praised by the paper Al Liwa.

The existence of Zionism and the support the Jewish masses gave it enabled the Arab feudal reaction to divert anger against Zionism away from imperialism and the minority of capitalists among the Jewish community. Instead it was diverted towards an anti-Jewish channel of racial hatred.

The class struggle of the Arab proletariat, which was yet in its swaddling clothes, did not advance or strengthen during the national uprisings of 1929 and 1936-39. On the contrary, it was paralysed. Whereas in popular uprisings in the colonies strikes against foreign capital play a progressively increasing role, in Palestine something very different happened. From 1933 to 1935 there were large-scale economic strikes of Arab workers, mainly in the enterprises of foreign capital: Iraq Petroleum Co, Shell, the railways, the port of Haifa, the large tobacco company Karaman, Dick i Salti, and so on. As against this, during the whole period of the riots from 1936 to 1939 not a single strike took place in the enterprises of foreign capital and the government.

For the Arab feudal lords and bourgeoisie Zionism was the sole source of discord with imperialism. The Arab leaders unceasingly strove to prove that they could be allies of imperialism which could therefore safely dispense with Zionism as a pillar in the East. Constantly they repeated the refrain: the British policy of support for Zionism is due to the influence of the Jews but is against the interests of the empire.

The impasse facing Arab workers and Jewish workers could have been broken only by a strong and dynamic Arab working class movement. Alas, the Palestinian working class was far too small and weak to deliver this.

Building a Trotskyist organisation in Palestine

From 1938 until September 1946 I was engaged in an effort to build a Trotskyist organisation in Palestine. It was very hard going. Throughout the world Trotskyism, the Fourth International, never managed to bring about a large-scale breakaway from the ranks of the traditional parties of the labour movement. In this its fate was very different to that of the First, Second and Third Internationals.

The First International was made up of relatively large organisations, and although there was a break of some two decades between the end of the First and establishment of the Second International, many thousands who were members of the First joined the Second. The Third International, the Communist International (or Comintern) came into being as the result of huge splits in the Second International. The Italian Socialist Party, at its conference in Bologna in September 1919, voted to join the Communist International, adding 300,000 members. In Germany the Independent Social Democratic Party, which split in 1917 from the Social Democratic Party, also decided to join the Communist International, adding another 300,000 members. In 1920 the French Socialist Party joined, adding 140,000 members. In June 1919 the Bulgarian Socialists voted to affiliate, bringing 35,478 members. The Yugoslav Socialist Party, also a mass party, joined. The Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party split in December 1920, the Communist left taking over half the membership and establishing a Communist Party of 350,000 members. A separate split in the Social Democratic Party of the German speaking minority added further forces, and after their unification the party claimed 400,000 members. The Norwegian Labour Party joined the Comintern in spring 1919. In Sweden the majority of the Socialist Party, after a split, joined the Comintern, adding another 17,000. [13]

Sadly, there was hardly any continuity in terms of individual revolutionaries between the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky in the early 1920s and the Trotskyist movement of the 1930s onwards. Crushed between the overpowering influence of Stalin and fear of Hitler, Trotskyist organisation always consisted of tiny groups on the margins of the mass movements. Thus the number of Trotskyists in Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s victory was 50! Despite the Spanish Revolution of 1936, in September 1938, according to the report of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, the membership of the Spanish section was between ten and 30!

The First, Second and Third Internationals came into existence during periods of working class advance; the Trotskyist organisations were born during a dire period in working class history – the victory of Nazism and Stalinism.

Trotsky’s criticism of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s was absolutely correct. But tragically this did not benefit Trotskyism. The disastrous errors of Stalinism contributed to Hitler’s victory and to setbacks in Britain, Spain and China. In consequence a defeated working class looked for a strong organisation to save it from the Nazi catastrophe. Stalinism became a religion.

I had to use three languages in Palestine: for Jewish workers I wrote in Hebrew, signing my articles Y. Tsur; for Arabs I used the pseudonym Yussuf el-Sakhry, and my English articles were signed L. Rock. All the names mean rock or stone.

While trying to build a Trotskyist organisation in Palestine in 1938 we made contact with the US Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers Party. It sent us a regular supply of Trotsky’s writings. This was of fantastic importance for us. But the going was very hard. By 1946 our membership reached nearly 30, of whom seven were Arabs, the rest Jews. It was very difficult, if not impossible, for Jewish members to distribute the Arabic magazine or Arabic leaflets. It was extremely difficult for them to recruit Arabs into the organisation because very few of them worked with Arabs, as I have remarked above.

With perseverance we did manage to win precious Arab workers and intellectuals. They were human diamonds. At the beginning of 1940 I managed to win over the editor of El Nur, the legal Arab paper of the Palestine Communist Party, although the party as such was illegal. His name was Jabra Nicola, a really brilliant man. While editor of El Nur, Jabra earned his living as a journalist on a bourgeois Arabic daily. He worked during the night. Every day at the end of his shift I would meet him and discuss with him for three or four hours. After nearly a month I convinced him. Perhaps he was also motivated by the prospect of not being pestered any longer! This was a really great achievement. To grasp the harsh conditions under which Jabra lived, I shall relate one incident. Chanie had to go and visit him to get an article he wrote. I couldn’t do this as I was on the run from the police. She went to his ‘house’ – one room. In this one room he lived with his wife and one year old child, his widowed sister and her young child, and his mother who was dying from cancer.

In 1942 we won the Arab secretary of the Communist Party in Jerusalem. The story is quite fascinating. From the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935 until August 1939 the Stalinist parties throughout the world insisted that the coming war would be an anti-fascist crusade. With the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 the line changed completely: now the war was an imperialist war. When Nazi Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 a new sharp turn took place. Now Churchill was Stalin’s pal and the policy of the British Communist Party, for example, was to call for an alliance with Churchill, to wave the Union Jack, and to sing ‘God Save the King’ with gusto. That was simple.

But what could be done in a country like Palestine in which two separate peoples lived, with separate national leaders, national anthems and national flags? With the Hitler-Stalin Pact in place the Palestine Communist Party argued that the whole East was the foe of imperialism and ‘the masses of Indians and Arabs were on the eve of open revolts against imperialist rule’. [14] When the Nazis invaded Russia a decisive change of line occurred. Now, ‘The government must understand that it has an important region of friends in the Middle East’. [15] Before, the ‘British government in Palestine represented the regime of subjugation, exploitation, repression and black reaction. This regime is the same regime of Hitler and Mussolini with whom British-French imperialism struggle for monopoly over the exploitation of the proletariat of the capitalist countries and the oppressed nations of the colonies’. [16] Now the British high commissioner was the representative of democracy, and ‘we keep in our hearts his good personal features...the manifestation of his true social characteristics’. [17]

With the 180 degree swing in the policy of the Stalinists in June 1941, becoming enthusiastic supporters of the ‘war for democracy’, the Jewish Stalinists began, with a few reservations, to be ambivalent about Zionism. Obviously the Arab Stalinists could not stomach this so the party split into two: the Jewish one (which had not a single Arab member) continued to bear the name Palestine Communist Party (PCP); the Arab one, which according to its statutes might include only Arabs, was called National Freedom League. A patriotic race between the two began. On VE Day the PCP marched under the blue-white Zionist flag, their slogans being ‘Free immigration’, ‘Extension of colonisation’, ‘Development of the Jewish National Home’, and ‘Down with the [British government’s 1939] white paper’ (restricting Jewish immigration). The National Freedom League participated in the Arab National Front, which included feudal and bourgeois parties, and called for a fight ‘Against Zionist immigration’, ‘Against the transfer of land to Zionists’, and ‘For the white paper’.

We sent two comrades – one Arab and one Jew – to the National Freedom League to apply for membership. The comrades were told, ‘The Arab can join, but the Jew cannot’. Our comrades replied, ‘We want to join together. We will not accept leaving one of us out in the cold.’ Then we sent the same couple to the PCP where the roles were reversed. Faced with this the Arab secretary of the NFL in Jerusalem joined us.

The most scandalous behaviour of the Stalinists occurred in the 1944 national railway strike. This opened the way to our recruiting a leading Arab railway worker. The Stalinists issued a leaflet, one side of which was written in Arabic, the other side in Hebrew. The first ended with the slogan: ‘For a democratic strike committee without difference of religion or nationality’. The Hebrew side ended, ‘Elect a strike committee on the basis of parity between Jews and Arabs’. As hardly any Arab worker could read Hebrew and very few Jews could read Arabic, the Stalinists were confident they could get away with it. One of our comrades approached a leading Arab militant and translated into Arabic the Hebrew side of the leaflet. The railwayman was really shocked, and after confirming the translation with someone else, he broke from the Stalinists and joined our group.

Alas, throughout the long months and years, in spite of really great efforts on our part, the group continued to be minuscule. Even more frustrating, it had no impact at all on the working class. As a matter of fact, the average branch of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain today has greater impact than we had in Palestine.

Our very meagre achievements were not the result of laziness, slovenliness or dilettantism; we worked very hard indeed. I personally lived as a professional revolutionary, engaged as a full-timer in building the group. In 1936, before we started the group, I worked for one year for my living. I became a building worker, believing that without the sweat of my brow I could not understand workers. So for a year I worked something like 12 hours a day six days a week. The result was that in practice I did no political activity to speak of, being too tired. This experience immunised me from the four-letter word: work. I spent hardly any time doing anything other than political activity. I managed to translate two books into Hebrew for money – one from English, the other from German. In passing, the first translation caused some fun. The book I translated was the massive volume The Decline of American Capitalism by Lewis Corey (a founding member of the US Communist party). After I finished the translation for the publishing house of Hashomer Hatzair, Lewis Corey was approached for permission to publish it. He refused because, as he stated, ‘I stopped being a Marxist.’ The second was a book of Fritz Sternberg, the German theoretician of the Socialist Workers Party (SAP).

The money from these two translations helped me along. In winter I picked oranges from the nearby orange grove. This was an important supplement to the bread, jam, one egg a day, tea and milk that I survived on.

Every step our group took met with great difficulty. To collect articles for our magazines, one of us, who was not known to the police or to the Zionist organisations, would have to travel to pick up the article, let us say from Haifa, to bring to Tel Aviv.

The printing was a very burdensome task. We could not go to a commercial printer as our publications were illegal. We did not have a printing press of our own; we did not even have a duplicator. What we had was a flatbed copier. To start with one had to type the magazine on a stencil. Then the stencil was put over a single sheet of paper, and a roller covered with ink passed over it to bring up the print. One had to be very careful not to put one printed sheet over another. They had to be carefully spread until they dried – a very time-consuming process.

For a couple of months our printing became even more burdensome. A comrade who was a printing worker got hold of a small hand activated printing machine. It was kept in my room. I had to set the type by hand, letter by letter. It took ages. One day, on returning home, a young girl who lived in the same house, rushed to tell me, ‘The police are in your room.’ Naturally I scarpered. But what a relief to get rid of this printing machine. For a time I used to wake up in the middle of the night with a nightmare, thinking that perhaps I had informed the police myself to get rid of the burden.

Then came the difficulty of the delivery of the paper to different towns – one could not use the post. A comrade had to go by coach, let us say from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and put a package on the rack, pretending that it had nothing to do with him in case the police searched the coach – a very common event. The individual copies of the magazine then had to be distributed directly among contacts of our members.

The burden on a small group of less than 30 members of publishing two separate magazines – one in Arabic, the other in Hebrew – plus from time to time leaflets in English for the British troops occupying Palestine, was really massive.

When it came to the distribution of leaflets we had to be very innovative. One could not stand in the street and distribute leaflets. I invented a couple of mechanisms for accomplishing this. I had to find a tall building, let us say of two or three storeys, by the town’s main road. I would then climb up to the roof and tie a string to the leaflets. The string would go through a candle, and its end would then be tied to something on the roof. The candle was inside a tin to protect it from the wind. After being lit and melting the candle away the fire would reach the string and burn through it, thus releasing the leaflets which floated down to the street below, hopefully to be caught and read by passers by. What a joy it was to stand in the street and see the leaflets dispersed.

Another contraption consisted of a string to which on one end the leaflets were tied, on the other a tin of water with holes in the bottom. The resultant loss of water would cause the leaflets to tip over, then drop, float down and thus get distributed.

We faced danger not only from the police, but also from the Zionist organisations. I shall illustrate this with a couple of incidents.

One day I and my girlfriend were walking towards my home in Jerusalem. When I was just opposite it I saw two tall young men at the gate of the house. I guessed who they were, but it was too late. My friend had already gone through the gate, and I could not leave her on her own, so I followed her. The two young men beat me up. We eventually got away. On later returning I found a notice on my door threatening me with dire consequences if I did not leave Jerusalem. I had no alternative but to follow the instruction of Etzel, the fascist paramilitary organisation.

The second incident I shall relate occurred at an assembly of students at the Hebrew University in which there was an extreme right wing speaker from the Revisionists, now called the Likud Party. The Revisionists used to use the same salute as the Italian Fascists and German Nazis – an outstretched arm. Their headquarters in Tel Aviv was called the Brown House in imitation of the Nazi HQ in Munich. This particular speaker made a fierce attack on Marxism, calling it a ‘gentile ideology poisoning our Jewish spirit’. This was a mirror image of Nazi propaganda about Marxism being Jewish. After he spoke I got up and said, ‘I agree with the speaker, Marxism is gentile, but the Hitler salute and the brown shirts are not.’ I paid for it by being beaten.

The final threat, of course, was from the police. A few days after the beginning of the Second World War on 1 September 1939, two plainclothes policemen knocked on the door of the house I lived in in Haifa. They came to search the place. They found nothing incriminating, but while carrying out the search they spoke to one another with the obvious aim of intimidating me. One of them described quite accurately the looks of my girlfriend; the other added, ‘When shall we rape her?’ Although I was convinced it was merely psychological warfare against me I was still scared.

A few days later the same two detectives returned. In the meantime I wrote an anti-war leaflet, the main theme of which was that it was an imperialist war and that workers should unite to fight capitalism; to use Lenin’s words, ‘Turn the imperialist war into civil war’, and carry out an international revolution. One sentence in the leaflet sticks in my memory: ‘52 states in the League of Nations recognise the right of Zionism to build a Jewish National Home in Palestine, but the village of Qaqoon does not.’

Just before we started distributing the leaflet I asked my brother, who was also a member of our Trotskyist group, to be sure that our room was clean. A day later the two detectives turned up again. A few seconds after they entered the room one of them lifted a newspaper and found underneath it the draft of the leaflet in my own handwriting. Had it been a printed leaflet I could have claimed that I simply found it in the street, but now the evidence was incontrovertible.

I and my brother, who was two years older than me, were taken and put in a cell in a police station. After three days and nights of complete isolation, some time after midnight we were woken up, handcuffed together and taken for a walk. Behind us the two detectives were talking to one another: ‘Where should we dump the bodies?’ I whispered to my brother, ‘Don’t worry! They are simply preparing us for interrogation.’ Alas, when we arrived at the headquarters of the CID, my brother’s face was white as a sheet.

An officer had barely interrogated me when he put on the table a printed form with my name filled in and a sentence of ‘12 months detention’. (My brother was sentenced to six months of early evening curfew. He left our group.)

Arriving in prison I met the general secretary of the Palestine Communist Party, Meir Slonim, who had been detained for a number of years. When the war broke out he applied to join the British army – after all, since the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in August 1935 the Stalinists had argued strongly that the coming war would be a war against fascism. It took a few weeks until the Colonial Office in London answered Slonim’s request to leave prison and join the army. Alas, in the meantime he learnt that the war was not an antifascist war, but an imperialist one, so he refused to leave prison. There were five Trotskyists in the same prison. So we went around saying, ‘We are prisoners, but Slonim is a volunteer here.’

The background of the four other Trotskyists was interesting. They were emigrants from Germany. Having come to Palestine they had enquired about us and came to the conclusion that nothing could be done in Palestine. They made a collection of our literature with the intention of producing an article for Trotsky explaining why activity was pointless in Palestine. When they were arrested the police found this considerable quantity of material with them and concluded that they had uncovered the HQ of Trotskyism. These unfortunate individuals got 30 month jail sentences. When I met them I said, ‘You see, if you are active you get 12 months, but if you are passive you get 30.’

In the same prison I met Avraham Stern, of the extreme right wing Zionist terrorist group the Stern Gang, that organised some sensational attacks on British installations. Stern was later assassinated by British agents. He explained the adoption of fascist symbols to me, saying that Britain needed Zionism to face the Arab world. Italian imperialism is much weaker than British and therefore it would need Zionism even more. Therefore, in the expectation that Italy and Germany would win the war, he was orientating on wooing the fascists. Of course, this position was developed before the Holocaust was known of.

Also there was Moshe Dayan, the future defence secretary of the first Israeli government, detained for illegally smuggling arms into the country.

There was a funny aspect to the prison. In its library one could find a book called Capital in the geography section. But when one of the prisoners received by post the novel by Stendhal called Red and Black, he was not allowed to have it because political books were banned. Facing the paucity of literature I did two things: first I decided to learn French, so I took Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days in French, together with its translation into English, and read them sentence by sentence. That was a useful way of learning the language.

But that was not enough to fill the many hours of the day. One book was in abundance in the prison – the Bible. I became intrigued with the possibility of using Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State to interpret events described in the bible.

Engels describes the disintegration of primitive communism as a result of the development of the productive forces and man’s advance of knowledge. The result was the move from hunter-gatherer society to land cultivation. This was associated with the rise of private property and the monogamous family.

I wrote in the thick notebook that I filled on the subject that the same process is described in the fable of Adam and Eve being pushed from the Garden of Eden for eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. God told Adam, ‘In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread.’

Even the names Adam and Eve reflect the process. The name Eve comes from the Hebrew word chava, which derives from the word chaim meaning ‘life’, because ‘she was the mother of all living’. And where does the name Adam come from? I argued that it comes from the word adama, the Hebrew for earth. It was women who first nurtured animals; it was men who cultivated the land.

A similar development is described by Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel. In Hebrew the names are Cain and Hevel. The word Cain, I believed, was derived from the word cinian, property, while Hevel means something like vapour. And so the murder of Hevel by Cain was the victory of the private ownership of the land fighting the nomadic tribes.

A similar story is told by the conflict between Jacob and Esau. Esau was a hunter. He sold his birthright to his brother Jacob, which made him so angry that he wanted to kill his brother.

Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State owed a lot to Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society, which I also read. Morgan argues that at the beginning of society and for a long period afterwards unrestricted sexual relations prevailed within the tribes, every women belonged equally to every man, and every man to every woman. Between this state that Engels denoted as primitive communism and the stage of the rise of the family there was a transition period in which the tribe was divided into gentes.

After the exclusion of parents and children from sexual intimacy with one another, a second stage was the exclusion of sisters and brothers. This led to the division of the tribe into separate gentes. The gens denoted the lineage of descent and was associated with a certain social and cultural structure.

With the increase in population, each of these original gentes splits up into several daughter gentes... The tribe itself breaks up into several tribes, in each of which we find again, for the most part, the old gentes. [18]

In prison I decided to investigate whether, and to what extent, the rise of the gens reflected itself in the Bible. I remember finding dozens of examples to demonstrate this. Alas, my knowledge of the Bible has become very rusty, as has my knowledge of Hebrew. The result is that when, while working on the present biography, I spent a couple of hours rereading the Bible I found I could not dig out once again the evidence for these ideas.

I also analysed the changes in religious ceremonies in terms of reflecting changes in class structure. For example, in one part of the Bible all Israelites were entitled to participate in eating from the altar after the sacrifice. In another only the priests (Cohenim) were entitled to do so. Elsewhere there was differentiation among the priests, between Cohenim and Levis.

So one could decide which part of the Bible was written earlier and which later according to the religious customs described. And this gave an opening to look at other aspects of the time. The standard practice among Bible experts was to look at the style of language as the key to decide the order in which the different parts of the Bible were written.

I did a lot of work and sent my conclusions to a Bible expert who was very impressed. I do not know if my contribution was of any value at all but it helped me to grasp the Marxist method of analysis, not as a dogma but a weapon of research.

Alas, the manuscript has been lost and will probably never be found.

An urge to leave Palestine and go to Egypt

The fact that we were getting nowhere was becoming more and more frustrating. Formally we said the right things: Arab workers should fight Zionism and imperialism and break with the reactionary Arab leadership; Jewish workers should join the Arab masses in the struggle. We repeated the word ‘should’ again and again. One expression of this was a series of three articles I wrote for the American Trotskyist monthly New International: British Policy in Palestine (October 1938), The Jewish-Arab Conflict (November 1938), and Class Politics in Palestine (June 1939). I used the pseudonym L. Rock.

Formally we stuck with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. But this theory did not limit itself to using the subjunctive ‘should’. Trotsky did not confine himself to arguing that the proletariat of Petrograd should lead the mass of the peasantry in fighting Tsarism and capitalism, or should carry out the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (solving the land question, achieving national self determination of the oppressed nationalities, etc). As a matter of fact the revolutionary action of the Petrograd proletariat in 1905 did have just such an impact on the whole of Russia, and in 1917 it went even further and was able to encourage international revolution.

The workers of a provincial Palestinian town or a few provincial towns could not have the same impact. We were right in saying that the Arab working class could have overthrown imperialism and Zionism and smashed the reactionary leadership of the Arab people. But the Palestinian working class was only a very small part of the Arab working class. It was a minnow compared to the Egyptian working class. Thus, in 1944 the total number of Palestinian wage earners was estimated at 160,000. As against this, the number of Egyptian wage earners, excluding agricultural workers who were very numerous, was more than two million.

The largest number of Palestinian workers working in one unit – the railways – in 1944 was 4,000. As against this, in Egypt Mekhala el-Kubra textiles employed over 30,000; engineering and tyre repair factories in Tel el-Kabir employed 17,000 workers; Alexandria’s weaving works, Filatule Nationale, employed 10,000. [19]

Working class struggle in Egypt was far ahead of anything happening in Palestine and has remained at a high level ever since. [20]

Comparing Palestine to Egypt I became more and more convinced that the former working class was far too weak to be a lever to move events in the Middle East. The Egyptian working class was the key factor in the Middle East.

The manuscript of a book on the Middle East

I decided to devote far more time to studying the Middle East. Long before I had been drawn to analysing the situation in Egypt. Already in 1935 I had written an article entitled The Present Agrarian Crisis in Egypt, and sent it to a serious economic journal published in Tel Aviv, Hameshek Hashitufi. I was surprised by the editor’s letter accepting the article. He wrote that it was clear that I had spent years in studying the subject. As a matter of fact I spent about a fortnight. The article was a result of my enthusiasm for the subject, the study of a number of statistical reports and absorbing Lenin’s writings on the agrarian question in Russia. (In passing, one day I came across the editor, and both of us were very embarrassed when he saw me as a young man aged 18 wearing shorts.)

After spending a couple of years in preparing the material, and then a further two years in writing, I produced a manuscript on the Middle East. The manuscript described and analysed the economic structure of the countries of the Middle East, the social and political forces struggling within them, the role of imperialism, the national movement and the workers’ movement. The countries covered were Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The rest of the Arab Peninsula (Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen) were not dealt with because they were so backward that no national movement, or even less, a working class movement, existed there. They were not moved by the mighty rumblings shaking the Arab East as part of world history.

My English was very poor, so I wrote in Hebrew. The Hebrew version was completed in July 1945. It took another ten months for its translation into English. This was done by Chanie.

A summary of the book’s contents shows how serious (and how ambitious) was the approach to the subject. It starts with a historical survey from the golden age of Arab feudalism (8th to 13th centuries), when the Arabs were at the peak of world culture. It goes on to describe and analyse the invasion of Europe into the area from the conquest of Egypt in 1798 by the French until the present time. The influence of Europe was contradictory: it undermined the foundations of the old order but at the same time preserved them. Five chapters were devoted to this.

Two chapters analyse the invasion of the Arab East by the imperialist powers in recent decades, followed by a long chapter on the development of industry and banking in Egypt. A further chapter is devoted to the agrarian question there. These are followed by chapters dealing with similar matters in Palestine, Syria and Iraq.

The manuscript then deals with the national question, with five separate chapters on Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, and finally Iraq. This is followed by a chapter on Zionism. Then comes a section dealing with the working class movement in the Arab East: first a chapter on the trade unions, then a chapter on the Stalinist organisations and their attitude to the war, to unity with the leaderships of the capitalists and landlords, to the agrarian question, and to Zionism. This is followed by a chapter on the rise of independent proletarian power in Egypt.

The last chapter deals with the tasks of a revolutionary workers’ movement in the Arab East.

The writing of this manuscript convinced me that I should make the effort to move to Egypt.

Making an effort to move to Egypt

In 1940 I had an opportunity to test the possibility of moving to Egypt. In our Trotskyist group there was a comrade whose sister was married to a British soldier stationed there. I had heard of a Trotskyist group in Egypt.

I asked her to look into the situation. Being a foreigner with a very poor command of Arabic, and an accent that stood out for miles, I knew I would face great difficulties. (The Egyptian dialect of Arabic is radically different to that of the Palestinians.) I needed comrades to support me, hide me and look after me. Sadly, the report I got from my friend after visiting Egypt was very disappointing indeed. According to her, the tiny Trotskyist group was made up of dilettantes. One person told her, ‘If you want to find the Trotskyists in Cairo, look around until you find three or four Rolls Royce cars in the street together; you’ll then know the Trotskyists are meeting.’ (Of course this was a big exaggeration). She met a couple of Trotskyists. I remember the names of two of them – Ramses Yunan and Georges Heinan. They belonged to a group called Art et Liberté (Art and Freedom). Its name makes it clear that it was a literary group – in fact it was a Surrealist group. The language used was French, although the members were Arab-speaking indigenous Egyptians.

She disabused me of the thought of going to Egypt to work illegally. Even with solid support from revolutionaries, the enterprise would have been very risky.

When my efforts to get to Egypt collapsed I was very depressed. But revolutionaries cannot indulge in self pity. I continued to make great efforts to build the Palestinian group and to get our publications out.

Summary: the advantages of backwardness and isolation

Developing as a Marxist in backward and isolated Palestine had its advantages. The place provided a concentrated political education because it was a crossing point for so many currents – imperialism and nationalism, feudalism and capitalism, oppression and exploitation, plus the full range of political responses from far right through Stalinism to the left. Above all it encouraged self reliance, independence and daring in thought and action.

To refer to one incident: in August 1935 the Seventh congress of the Communist International took place. This was the one that launched the policy of the Popular Front. If I had lived in Britain, France or the United States I would have got Trotsky’s comment on the Seventh Congress a few days after it took place and would not have had to write about it myself. Alas, in Palestine, Trotsky’s writings on this subject reached us some two months later. In the meantime, a few days after the Congress, an editor of a centrist paper in Palestine asked me for an article on the subject.

I obliged. My article pointed out, quite correctly, that the move towards the Popular Front – an alliance of the workers’ parties, the communists and socialists, with bourgeois liberal parties – was a massive move to the right. I did not see the other side of the coin: the contradictory nature of the Popular Front. It raised the expectations of millions of workers and led to mass actions and a big turn to the left. In May 1936, for example, the Popular Front won the general election in France. Workers said to themselves, ‘We have the government, now let’s take over the factories,’ and a mass occupation of the factories took place. Backwardness and isolation do not guarantee you against errors, but they do spur you towards independent thought and action.

The situation I faced has certain parallels with the argument Marx made about German philosophy: the French made the revolution in 1789, the Germans thought about it. Thus the French bourgeoisie in 1789 was far more effective than the German revolutionary movement in 1848. But German philosophy, above all that of Hegel, far surpassed French philosophy. The self reliance imposed on me in Palestine would affect the rest of my life. This became especially so after the death of Trotsky when the alternatives were either repeating, parrot-like, his sayings, or facing up to new situations, new problems with independent thinking.

The urge for intellectual independence affected even my first steps in learning Marxist economics. After reading the three volumes of Capital I spent a year or so reading the books Marx was responding to – -from William Petty to Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Mill and John Stuart Mill. I did not indulge in this because I had any doubts about Marx’s analysis. On the contrary I did it because I was not sure I could understand his criticism of classical political economy without reading the texts. I always knew that the best way to improve the working of the brain is to use it. President Hindenburg of Germany – the man who summoned Hider to become Chancellor in 1933 – is reported to have stated, ‘To preserve my brain I never read books’, but I knew he was wrong. Many a young man could knock out the boxer Mike Tyson if he was in constant training while Tyson lay in bed for a year or so. I do not know how good my brain is, but I am sure now and always that I am very single minded in keeping it at work.

The situation of backwardness and isolation was not inevitably favourable to political development. It could ‘make or break’ a person. As it turned out I was forced to rise to the occasion.

Out of the blue – an opportunity to go to London

A few months after completing and editing the manuscript on the Arab East, an opportunity to leave Palestine and go to London came out of the blue.

Chanie’s parents emigrated from South Africa to settle in Palestine during 1945. Her father was a factory owner in Cape Town. He wanted to visit Britain to buy textiles for his factory. After getting a visa to travel to Britain he found out that he did not need this document as his South African passport was valid without it. Hearing of this, I jumped at the idea of going to Britain to be his representative. It was an incongruous situation for me to be carrying an order for textiles worth £40,000 when in my whole life I had never seen as much as £100.

Before travelling to England Chanie and I decided to get married, as her good South African passport could subsume my rotten British Protectorate of Palestine one, and make travel for me easier.

We were penniless and my total worldly possessions were a pair of short trousers, a pair of shoes, a shirt and books. We had to apply to the rabbis, as there was no civil marriage. The first hurdle of many was for me to get a divorce from the fictitious marriage I had entered into ten years earlier to save a Jewish woman from Hitler’s Germany. This was a practice the rabbis were party to then. But now they demanded a proper legal divorce which took precious weeks to organise, and preyed on our nerves as the woman had disappeared. With the threat that we would ‘live in sin’ (as if we weren’t already!) the rabbis delivered the divorce.

Chanie remembers what happened next:

My brother, who was in the diplomatic service, and his wife were to be witnesses to the wedding. So we decided to try to put on some show. Without any money this proved to be a problem. First of all the essential chupah (canopy) had to be out on the pavement for free, as it cost money to have the ceremony inside a building. Then we thought the ‘groom’ needed long trousers, and for religious purposes certainly had to

acquire a hat. A ring, wine and a cloth to cover my face (as the ‘bride’ was not supposed to be seen till after the ceremony) were also required.

The trousers: we knew no one with long trousers except one South African member of our organisation who was considerably thinner than Cliff. So the groom had to wear his trousers unbuttoned.

The hat: the only person we knew with this article was a building worker who used a slouch cap covered with cement. This Cliff wore, perched ridiculously on his huge head.

The cloth and ring: my sister-in-law lent these – the first an attractive net cloth, which the rabbi immediately discarded, as my face could vaguely be seen, and was replaced with a handkerchief – the second, a ring made of platinum. In the middle of the ceremony the rabbi looked at this and asked, ‘What’s this? (As the husband buys the wife through the ring it needs to be of value and is thus nearly always gold.) Cliff replied, ‘Platinum.’ The rabbi did not know what platinum was, and thought it was tin, so he asked, ‘How much does it cost?’ Cliff mentioned some large sum of money. All this in the middle of the ceremony!

Finally, the wine we had spent the last of our borrowed money on, and intended to drink with my brother and sister-in-law: the rabbi put the glass to each of our lips as the ceremony requires, snatched it away – and kept the bottle.

Meanwhile beggars surrounded the pavement chupah, and as soon as the ceremony was over, moved forward in droves to beg. My brother emptied his pockets, and, fuming at the avaricious rabbis, we angrily stomped away – with a piece of paper to say we were married!

And I could now travel with peace of mind.

When I next washed my clothes the wind blew away my only shirt, and, having to pay back our debt for the marriage fees, we were poorer than ever.

The Palestinian immigration authorities did not want to antagonise the British trade commissioner in Palestine who needed to ratify my travel, so I was allowed to leave the country with a warning ringing in my ears, ‘We will have you back in Palestine in less than three months’ time.’ After all, I had been on the run from the police for a couple of years.

When we arrived in Dover the immigration officer naturally asked me for the name of the company I represented. I did not know it! With my ridiculous showing at the port he stamped my passport with the minimum stay – three months.




2. Jewish Labour, a collection of articles and speeches published by the Histadrut in Hebrew (Tel Aviv 1935), p.53.

3. From We and Our Neighbours, Speeches and Essays (Tel Aviv 1931), in Hebrew.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. The War Front of the Jewish People, in Hebrew.

8. The Guardian, 26 March 1999.

9. A Liwa, 1 June 1936.

10. Yu. Haikal, The Palestine Problem (Jaffa), in Arabic, pp.215-216, 219.

11. M. Magannan, The Arab Woman and the Palestine Problem (1937), in Arabic, pp.217-218.

12. See, for instance, Falastin, 4 February 1937.

13. T. Cliff, Lenin, vol.4 (London 1979), pp10-11.

14. Kol Ha’am (Hebrew organ of the Palestine Communist Party), June 1940.

15. Kol Ha’am, December 1942.

16. Kol Ha’am, July 1940.

17. Al-Ittihad (organ of the Arab Stalinists in Palestine), 3 September 1944.

18. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Peking,1978), p.190.

19. A. Cohen, The Contemporary Arab World (Tel Aviv, 1960), in Hebrew, pp.168-169.

20. The following is a list of key struggles in Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s:


Most of the 26,000 workers at Misr Fine Spinning and Weaving Company in Kafr al-Dawwar occupy for democratisation of the (state-run) union. Massive local solidarity and three-day ‘uprising’. Riot police stormed the factory – three dead, 220 arrested.


Mahalla al Kubra strike: 25,000 workers on strike. They led mass demonstrations through the city. Hundreds were arrested.


Railway strike: major national dispute paralysing the whole network for three days, in which 10,000 workers participated. Hundreds were arrested for leading an illegal strike.


All 17,000 at Esco textile mill in Shubra al-Khayma (north Cairo), of whom one third are women, occupy in pay struggle. Riot police storm the factory but most demands are met.


27,000 workers at Helwan steel works occupy the plant for two weeks over pay and union democratisation. Senior management taken hostage. Riot police storm plant: one killed, 700 arrested.


25,000 workers in strike and occupation of Kafr al-Dawwar mill. Mass demonstrations in city surround the mill. Four killed, hundreds arrested.


5,000 workers of Gianaclis winery and fruit processing plant (in the Delta) strike and occupy in opposition to privatisation. Owner taken hostage and only freed after massive police intervention. Hundreds arrested.


15,000 silk textile workers in Helwan occupied the factory and led major demonstrations. The government shut the factory for 30 days.

(Thanks to Phil Marfleet for this information.)


Last updated on 31.12.2005