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Internationalism versus nationalism: an overview



Mario Kessler,

A demonstration by Palestinian Communist Party in 1945

Today’s Communist Party of Israel points to March 1919 as the month in which it was founded.[1]  Its origins, however, lie in the Eastern European Jewish workers’ movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, and cannot be separated from two distinct lines of development within the international workers’ movement: the Jewish workers’ movement in Soviet Russia in the years immediately following the October Revolution, and the relations between Communists and socialist Zionists within the context of the emerging Communist International. Both of these aspects need to be considered in any analysis of the complicated and contradictory historical processes that led to the formation of a Communist Party in Palestine and marked its politics—the latter, of course, increasingly overshadowed by the Arab-Jewish conflict in Mandatory Palestine.

Mario Kessler works at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam (ZZF). He teaches at the University of Potsdam and has been a visiting professor at Yeshiva University in New York and other universities. He is also a member of the Historical Commission of Die Linke.

Left Zionism and Communism

By the turn of the twentieth century, socialists had come to believe that the transformation of capitalist into socialist society, which seemed possible in the near future, would also tear down the social barriers separating Jews and non-Jews. The process of Jewish assimilation, which had been initiated by capitalist society in Western Europe, would achieve a new quality under socialism, becoming part of the general amalgamation of nations. This view was also shared by many western-educated members of the Jewish intelligentsia in Eastern Europe. As opponents of the Tsar’s anti-Semitic regime, they viewed the integration of Jews into the workers’ movement as a pre-condition and a component of a successful revolutionary politics. The General Jewish Labour Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia, founded in 1897, countered this view, arguing that the cultural uniqueness of the Jews in Eastern Europe made assimilation impossible, especially since anti-Semitism among all classes of non-Jews (including workers) presented a serious obstacle to integration. Nor did they see how it could be possible for Jews to swap their national characteristics for an abstract ideal, one which non-Jewish socialists were not even able to precisely define. A Jew conscious of his nationality, said the Bund, could fight for socialism as much as anyone else.

However, whether they advocated for Jewish assimilation in Eastern Europe or opposed it, socialists agreed with one another that Jewish emigration, while it ought to be a legally available option, could not replace the struggle for the social emancipation of Jews in Eastern Europe.

The Zionist approach to the solution of the Jewish question came to completely different conclusions. Emerging as a political movement at the end of the nineteenth century, Zionism was a reaction to nationalist and for the most part anti-Semitic political movements in Central and Eastern Europe, which were claiming historically legitimated entitlement to particular territories. The conception of Zionism that ultimately prevailed saw the future of the Jews in Palestine. The first Zionist intellectuals and politicians emerged from the Central European bourgeoisie. However, the movement found its mass basis among Jewish proletarians of the Russian Empire (including Congress Poland) and Romania who were doubly oppressed: both nationally and socially.

But both before World War I and between the wars, Zionism was a strong minority current among Eastern European Jewry. It achieved its mobilizing power via a combination of Zionist and socialist ideas, announcing as its aim the establishment of a socialist Jewish state in Palestine. The most important proponent of this idea, Ber Borochov (who died at an early age), also founded the Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) party in Russia in 1905. Related organizations were founded in Austria, Romania, England, and other countries, and came together in 1907 to form the World Federation of Poale Zion.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 posed the question of whether a socialist revolution could resolve the Jewish question—the overcoming of anti-Semitism and the achievement of civil rights for Jews—in Eastern Europe. In the civil war, the “White” armies often used anti-Semitism as a weapon in the fight against the Bolshevik government. In this desperate situation, many Jews saw the Red Army as their only hope. Its soldiers, too, were responsible for anti-Jewish pogroms, but to a markedly lesser degree than the Whites. Thus an increasing number of Jews took the side of the Bolsheviks during the civil war. These developments had far-reaching effects on the development of both Jewish socialism and the history of the Comintern.

The October Revolution and the Russian Civil War led to an ideological split between the socialist Zionist parties, of which Poale Zion was by far the most important, and “bourgeois” Zionism. The Poale Zion movement split internally, too, both within and outside Russia, including in Palestine. In March 1919 the pro-Bolshevik minority joined with left-wing Zionists already living there, to form a new grouping: the Socialist Workers Party (Mifleget Poalim Sozialistiim; MPS).[2] At a congress in October of the same year, the party announced its willingness to join the Comintern and fight for the establishment of a socialist-communist Jewish state in Palestine.

But the Comintern saw in Zionism nothing but a creature of the Jewish petite bourgeoisie and disoriented intellectuals. It criticized the Zionist notion that Palestine was an uninhabited country that had been—so to speak—merely waiting for Jewish immigration, and foresaw bloody conflicts between Jews and Arabs. The Comintern described Zionism as a tool of British imperialism and also characterized the left wing of Zionism as an anti-Communist movement in socialist or even Communist disguise.

The Poale Zionists, however, viewed the Comintern’s negative evaluation of Zionism as a merely temporary error that would soon be corrected once Poale-Zionist workers bolstered the international Communist armies in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In July and August 1920, at the Poale Zion world congress, a considerable section of the existing federation split and founded the Left Poale Zion (Poalei Zion Semol) with the intention of joining the Comintern as a transnational Jewish section. Its Palestinian branch, MPS, viewed itself as the core of the Left World Federation and urged the Comintern to engage in negotiations that were supposed to lead to the entry of the MPS as a national section for Palestine, but one which would also represent the interests of Jewish workers in the Diaspora.

After extended negotiations, the high-point of which was an intense debate at the Second World Congress of the Comintern in 1920, the Comintern rejected this and other suggestions. It accepted only former Poale Zionists’ individual applications for admission to the communist parties of their respective countries. New members had to have broken with Zionism in all of its forms, including the socialist one.[3]

The Palestinian Communist Party Prior to the First Civil War in 1929

In Palestine, the MPS now took on the name Palestinian Communist Party (Miflagah ha-Komunistit ha-Palestinaiit, PCP). It consisted of around 450 members. After the British authorities banned its activities in 1921, the party had to work illegally.[4] In September 1922 a radical minority led by Joseph Berger split and formed the Communist Party of Palestine. It vehemently attacked the PCP on account of the latter’s supposedly conciliatory attitude to socialist Zionism. In February 1923, the members of both parties were excluded from the Histadrut (or General Organization of Workers in Israel). This brought them closer together once more. In June 1923 a majority of the PCP accepted the radical stance of the Berger circle, and the parties merged. The reunited party called itself—in Yiddish, the language of the Diaspora—Palestinishe Komunistishe Partei (PKP). On 8 March 1924, the party was accepted into the Comintern.

The party adopted a programme written by Joseph Berger that broke with all forms of Zionism, describing the Arab national movement as a “pillar of the struggle against British imperialism”. The Central Committee consisted of Wolf Averbach (secretary), Berger (his deputy), Moishe Kuperman and Nahum Lestshinsky.[5]

In March 1924, Berger was sent to Moscow to lead the successful negotiations for the party’s acceptance into the Comintern. In the same year, he collaborated with his Palestinian comrade Ya’akov Tepper to found a Lebanese section, which later became the Lebanese Communist Party.[6] On behalf of the PKP he travelled to Egypt, Syria and Transjordan, while Party Secretary Wolf Averbach met with the leader of the 1925–27 Syrian revolt against French colonial rule.[7] In December 1924 Berger travelled to Moscow once more, in order to report to the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI).

The party condemned the colonization of Arab lands, but accepted the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, viewing its growth as a given fact, and hoping thereby to increase its political influence on the Jewish population. It declared itself for the independence of Palestine and called on Jewish and Arab workers to act together in everyday struggles. It attempted to “persuade Jews to turn their backs on Zionism and at the same time to make it clear to Arabs that progressive Jews could become their allies rather than enemies.”[8]

The Comintern saw the main task of the party, which consisted exclusively of Jews, as recruiting Arab members. This orientation was soon referred to as “Arabization”. Joseph Berger, liaising between the ECCI and the Palestinian party, was repeatedly instructed that “the mass of Arab workers must now be at the centre of the PKP’s work”.[9]

Berger was recalled once more to Moscow in the spring of 1929. There he had a five hour-long conversation with Stalin on 5 March. Berger was commissioned to strengthen ties with the Arab Executive Committee and other nationalist organizations. In August 1929 he returned to Palestine to take over the leadership of the party, with Averbach remaining in Moscow.

It was at this time that the Muslim authorities in Palestine sought to persuade the British Mandate Administration to guarantee them rights over the Wailing Wall (as it is referred to by the Jews).[10] For their part, Zionists, and especially right-wing Revisionists, were demanding complete control over the Wall in order to ensure that Jews could pray there unhindered. On 23 August 1929, under the influence of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hadj Amin al-Husseini, nationalist Arabs launched attacks against Jews in response to provocations by right-wing Zionists, which escalated into the first civil war in Palestine. But the targets of Arab attacks were mainly non-Zionists, members of the Middle-Eastern Jewish communities that had lived in the country for hundreds of years. After a week, British troops brought the situation under control. 133 Jews and 116 Arabs had been murdered. Most Arabs were killed by the British military police, some by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary force.[11] The self-defence force of the Communist Party, the Boyivka, under Moishe Kuperman’s leadership, managed to keep Berger and the Czech Comintern official Bohumír Šmeral safe from Arab attacks.[12]

On the eve of the attacks, the party had distributed a leaflet formulated in pacifist language.[13] In a first statement, Joseph Berger described the armed conflicts as a “civil war”, which he said was a result of colonialism. He said that Britain, fearing the unity of Arab and Jewish workers, had fomented racist hatred in order to divide the communities, making use of Arab Effendis and Zionist leaders to do so.[14]   An official party communiqué, written mainly by Berger, underscored this position. It saw the cause of the unrest in the protest of the exploited and expropriated mass of Arab workers against worsening living conditions, whereby the British colonial administration had succeeded in transforming the originally radically anti-colonial movement into an anti-Jewish pogrom. Reactionary Jewish and Arab leaders had each played their part in fomenting religious conflict by turning the Wailing Wall into a symbol of a struggle for power.[15]

At Moscow’s behest, however, Berger had to revise this assessment. An ECCI resolution of October 1929 characterized the struggles as an Arab anti-imperialist uprising against Britain and the Zionists, and demanded the unconditional support of the party for the “revolutionary Arab workers”, regardless of their nationalist and religious slogans and their subordination to the violent anti-Jewish policy of the Muftis of Jerusalem. The ECCI interpreted the clashes as an “intensification of the struggle between imperialism and the working masses in the colonial countries” as predicted by the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928. The ECCI resolution was emphatic: “So despite the fact that the insurrection movement was thus caused by an Anglo-Zionist provocation, to which the Arab reactionaries (the feudal lords and the clergy) tried to respond with a pogrom; despite the fact that in its initial stage it was under reactionary leadership, it was a national liberation movement, an anti-imperialist, all-Arab movement, and in its social composition—a peasant movement”. The resolution criticized the party leadership for failing to anticipate the uprising and for underestimating the revolutionary potential of the Arab masses. It saw the cause of these mistakes as the party leadership’s inability to win the support of Arab cadres capable of taking over the leadership of the PKP.[16]

Berger attributed the riots to the Histadrut’s refusal to accept Arab members. This had led dissatisfied people to fall behind the leadership of “treacherous feudal-bourgeois leaders and help strengthen their alliance with imperialism”.[17] Foreign observers, however, observed “not inconsiderable progress” in “Bolshevik propaganda” among Arab workers.[18]

The British administration suppressed the uprising and used the opportunity to stage a wave of persecution: several hundred CP members were expelled from Palestine. Most of them went to the Soviet Union, where quite a few of them became the victims of Stalinist reprisals.[19]

The Failed Binational Party Model

The decimated party tried to reorganize itself. The Central Committee elected in December 1930 consisted of three Arabs, including Nadjati Sidqi, who was party secretary for a short time, and two Jews. In October 1933, a new Arab uprising broke out, partly under anti-imperialist and no longer purely anti-Jewish slogans, but was quickly crushed again by mandate forces.[20]

The British now accommodated Arab nationalism to the extent that they gradually abandoned their policy of favouring Zionism. This happened at a time when the persecution of the Jews by the Hitler regime had already begun and was becoming increasingly widespread. Under its new secretary Radwan al-Hilu (known as Musa), the party called for support for the Arab national movement. At the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern in 1935, the Palestinian delegate declared that Jewish workers should be “persuaded that their national and class interests are linked to the victorious outcome of the national liberation movement of the Arab masses”.[21]

In this sense, the party leadership supported the new Arab uprising that broke out in April 1936. In what was the biggest revolt to date, the Mufti and his followers succeeded in mobilizing a considerable section of the Arabs in the struggle against the “Jewish infidels”. The British colonial power was seen as only a secondary opponent, with whom an understanding appeared possible. The Istiqlal (Independence) Party, which had a much stronger anti-colonial orientation, lost the initiative. At first, the calculations made by the Mufti’s supporters proved ill-founded, since Great Britain now for the first time came up with a plan to divide the country, although it only granted a narrow coastline as the area proposed for Jewish settlement. In May 1939, after sustained Arab resistance, the British withdrew this partition plan and almost completely closed Palestine to Jewish immigrants. The Comintern initially supposed the anti-colonial elements to be dominating the Arab uprising, which lasted until 1939, and instructed the party to support it.

However, this met with resistance from some of the Communists. On the one hand, they stressed that the persecution of Jews in Germany had created a new situation for Jews, whose immigration to Palestine was now to be supported. On the other hand, they pointed out that the Arab national leadership, which increasingly associated itself with Mussolini and Hitler, could not be a partner for Communists. In early 1937, the CP leadership decided to form a Jewish section within the CP. Although not all Jewish party members joined, it became apparent that joint actions by Arab and Jewish Communists under Palestine’s specific conditions were increasingly becoming impossible. Since 1938, and especially since the November Pogrom in Germany, the Comintern’s attitude toward the Arab leadership had become more critical. Nevertheless, the Communist Party dissolved its Jewish Section at the end of 1939.

The CP was on the verge of falling apart when the Comintern pushed for support for its new line under the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Some Jewish Communists formed a platform in August 1940 that challenged the authority of the party leadership.[22] By the beginning of the war, relations with the Comintern were broken off. The Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League (Berit ha-Kommunistim ha-Mahapchanim), formed in protest against the Moscow Trials of 1936–38, gained members, although the influx was modest.[23]

Almost simultaneously with the dissolution of the Comintern in May 1943, the Communist Party of Palestine split along ethnic lines. After the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jewish Communists in the party united with one segment of the Arab Communists, forming the Communist Party of Israel. Arab members who did not take this step formed the Communist Party of Jordan. Notwithstanding all the problems, however, the fact remains that the Communist Party of Palestine was the only interwar organization in the country in which Jews and Arabs worked together politically.

[1] On the history of the Communist Party of Palestine (the details of which will not be referenced each time in what follows) see Jacob Hen-Tov, Communism and Zionism in Palestine: The Comintern and the Political Unrest in the 1920’s, Cambridge (Massachusetts): Schenkman, 1974; Mario Offenberg, Kommunismus in Palästina: Nation und Klasse in der antikolonialen Revolution, Meisenheim: Hain, 1974; Alain Greilsammer, Les communistes israeliens, Paris: FNSP, 1978; Musa Budeiri, The Palestine Communist Party, 1919-1948: Arab and Jew in the Struggle for Internationalism, London: Ithaca Press, 1979; Suliman Bashear, Communism in the Arab East, 1918-1928, London: Ithaca Press, 1980; Alexander Flores, Nationalismus und Sozialismus im arabischen Osten: Kommunistische Partei und arabische Nationalbewegung in Palästina 1919-1948, Münster: Periferia, 1980; Mario Kessler, Die Kommunistische Internationale und der arabische Osten (1919-1929), dissertation, Leipzig 1982; Sondra Miller Rubenstein, The Communist Movement in Palestine and Israel, 1919-1984, London/Boulder (Colorado): Westview Press, 1986; Tamar Gozanski and Angelika Timm (eds.), Bead ha-neged!: ha-miflagah ha-kkomunisttit ha-Yisreelit 1919-2009 [Against the Current! The Communist Party of Israel, 1919-2009], Tel Aviv: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2009. The most important collection of primary sources is only available in Hebrew: Le’on Zehavi (ed.), Lehud o be-yahad. Yehudim ve ’Aravim be-Falestinah, al pi mismakhe ha-Komintern, 1919-1943 [Separately or Together: Jews and Arabs in Palestine according to Comintern Documents, 1919-1943], Jerusalem: Keter, 2005.

[2] For a time they called themselves the Jewish Socialist Workers (MPSI, Mifleget Poalim Sizialistiim Ivriim).

[3] On this see the author’s ‘Die Komintern und die Poale Zion 1919-1922: Eine gescheiterte Synthese von Kommunismus und Zionismus’, Arbeit–Bewegung–Geschichte, vol. 16 (2017), no. 2, pp. 15–30.

[4] The pretext was purported communist agitation at the May Day celebrations of 1921, following which there were limited Arab attacks on Jewish demonstrators. Not until after the German attack on the Soviet Union would it be possible for communists to again work legally in Palestine.

[5] Internationale Pressekorrespondenz (Inprekorr), no. 136, 22 August 1923, pp. 1187–1188.

[6] Lebanese Communists insisted on an organization of their own, independent of the Palestinian CP. See Jacques Couland, Le mouvement syndical au Liban 1919-1946, Paris: Editions sociales 1970, pp. 101–103.

[7][7] Thus Joseph Berger speaking to the Israeli daily, Yedioth Aharonoth on 15 March 1965, quoted in Budeiri, Palestine Communist Party, p. 9.

[8][8] Ran Greenstein, ‘Class, Nation, and Political Organization: The Anti-Zionist Left in Israel/Palestine’, International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 75 (2009), p. 88.

[9] Resolution of the ECCI on the report of the Palestinian Communist Party of 26 June 1926, in: Zehavi (ed.): Lehud o be-yahad, pp. 83f. (translated into English by Eleanor Yadin).

[10]The Wailing Wall, a part of the earlier Second Temple of Jerusalem, is a site of Jewish ritual that also forms part of the wall surrounding the Muslim Al-Aqsa-Mosque.

[11] On the violence of August 1929 see, inter alia, Yehoshua Porath, The Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918-1929, London: Frank Cass 1974; Hen-Tov, Communism, pp. 119–129; Mario Kessler, ‘Die Augustereignisse 1929, die Komintern und die KP Palästinas’, in: asien-afrika-lateinamerika, vol. 19 (1991), no. 3, pp. 517–529.

[12] Joseph Berger, ‘La rupture avec les communistes’, Les nouveaux cahiers, no. 13–14 (1968), p. 37. See also B. Smeral, [Bohumír Šmeral], ‘Mehr Aufmerksamkeit den Ereignissen in Palästina und in den arabischen Ländern!’, in: Inprekorr, no. 103, 5 November 1929, pp. 2439f.

[13] See Budeiri, Palestine Communist Party, p. 61, who refers to a pamphlet in Hebrew with the title ‘Do not change the Wailing Wall to a wall of hatred between you’.

[14] J. B. [Joseph Berger], ‘Das Blutbad im “Heiligen Land”’, Inprekorr, no. 86, 6 September 1929, pp. 2092f.

[15] ‘Der Aufstand in Palästina’, ibid., no. 90, 20 September 1929, pp. 2167–2169, and no. 91, 24 September 1929, pp. 2185–2187.

[16] Resolution of the Politburo of the ECCI on the Revolt in Arabistan. Adopted at the meeting of 16 Oktober 1929, in: ibid., no. 11, 31 January 1930, p. 258.

[17] J. B. [Josef Berger], ‘The Class Character of the Palestine Rising, Part One’, Labour Monthly, vol. 12 (1930), no. 3, p. 159, quoted in: Paul Kelemen, ‘British Communists and the Palestine Conflict, 1929-1948’, Holy Land Studies: a Multi-Disciplinary Journal, vol. 5 (2006), no. 2, p. 135.

[18] Report of the Consulate in Jerusalem to the Bundeskanzleramt, Vienna, 11 December 1929, Österreichisches Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Vienna, Neues Politisches Archiv, NPA 630, folio 279.

[19] Of the first Central Committee of the PKP only Joseph Berger survived the Stalinist terror. See Shipwreck of a Generation: The Memoirs of Joseph Berger, London: Harvill Press, 1971. Averbach, Lestshinsky, and Kuperman were murdered or died in camps.

[20] On the Arab revolts of 1933 and 1936–39, see Yehoshua Porath, The Palestinian-Arab National Movement. From Riots to Rebellion, 1929-1939, London: Frank Cass 1977.

[21] Speech by Hadjar (pseudonym of Muhammed Ashkar) on the report of comrade Dimitrov, in: Rundschau über Politik, Wirtschaft und Arbeiterbewegung, 6 November 1935, p. 2510.

[22]They called themselves Ha-Emeth (The Truth).

[23] Among them were Ygael Glickstein (who later in England called himself Tony Cliff), Gabriel Baer (later a well-known Israeli orientalist) and Jakob Moneta (later active in Germany as a unionist).