Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day in Israel: Whither Maki?

Note: An updated version of this article appears in The Atlantic, entitled "May Day in Israel: Scenes from a Communist Rally in the Holy Land", May 2, 2012

NAZARETH – And who said the international left was dead? Or perhaps we merely hoped as much. Rather, it is alive and well and living in Israel, for this weekend past a succession of rallies and protests were held in alignment with May 1 – International Workers’ Day – campaigning, MK Dov Khenin informed me, for social justice, peace, democracy, and the two-state solution.

Under the direction of the Israeli Communist Party (Maki), part of the broader Hadash movement since 1977, demonstrations were held on Friday evening in Jerusalem, Saturday night in Haifa, and on Sunday in Tel Aviv. In Nazareth prior to luncheon on Saturday, hundreds of people from across the generations and genders spilled out for a march which crossed from a petrol station located near to the Catholic Church of the Annunciation northward towards a somewhat dilapidated and decrepit concrete residential and commercial development across from Mary’s Well (where Orthodox Christians believe the Virgin Mary was visited by the Archangel Gabriel, thus commencing her pregnancy).

Whilst the influx of Russian immigrants and the perpetual occupation have combined to edge the country ever to the right, Hadash – a superficially joint Judeo-Arab front of socialist parties and organisations – won four seats in the most recent elections to the Knesset. They propose a self-described non-Zionist platform, one opposed to all forms of nationalism, in favour of total withdrawal from the West Bank and other territories gained after 1967 (an “aggressive war”), and the institutionalisation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The report on Maki’s most recent Party Congress in March speaks of the dangers of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, and the dangers posed by the ‘fascistic’ Netanyahu government.

Hadash’s appeals for Israel to become a bi-national state as opposed to a homeland for the Jewish people – their general secretary MK Mohammad Barakeh having stated previously that he “does not accept the demand that every Jew can come to Israel” – has, Avirama Golan argues, resulted in Hadash and Maki becoming shackled to “the separatist-nationalist and populist stream”. They are as such merely one facet of the larger Arab bloc with Balad, Ra’am, and Ta’al, which was reflected in the ethnographic make-up of those out in Nazareth on Saturday, which representing merely a cross-section of Arab Christian and Muslim society, as opposed to Israel more widely.

Specifically, given the nature of the Marxist-Leninist ideology Maki propagates, what troubled me somewhat about the May Day protest was the number of children who participated. Clad in pristine white T-shirts and smart red neckerchiefs, they formed a number of marching bands made up largely of drummers, carried banners, or in one case dressed up as milk cartons festooned with Arabic sloganeering. Some had been brought to the rally by their parents, who watched from the side of the road, cheered, and snapped pictures of their offspring.

Yet in my conversations with MK Khenin, he was firm when stressing that many had come of their own accord, stimulated and inspired by the political message of Maki. I do not necessarily doubt Khenin’s claim that many of the children were there of their own volition, out perhaps of a sense of comradeship with friends who also had the chance to chant, dress up, or play the drums. But given that these kids could not have been any older than fourteen, it is difficult to suggest with sincerity that they were anything other than ignorant of the ramifications of the principles they were supporting, or the crimes committed in the name of Marxism-Leninism.

Khenin admitted as much, arguing that the children could not know the “mistakes of history” and the “lessons learned” from them.  Indeed, how could they possibly know that, in marching under the hammer and sickle, they were in effect stomping all over the mass graves that litter the countryside in Russia, China, and Cambodia? Not only that, but how could they be aware that Maki (in its previous guise of Rakah), cooperated with the very central party in the Soviet Union that worked tirelessly to prevent the flourishing of Jewish religion and culture and prevent emigration to Israel?

The final rally in concrete carbuncle was a damp squib, for such was the heat of the midday sun that the majority of marches had retreated to shady areas in order to suckle on ice lollies. This had the effect of leaving the designated speakers – largely grizzled and scarred old comrades – to make their passionate, firebrand speeches to a half-empty square, each concluded with a smattering of wilted applause.

As a form of opposition to the current Netanyahu-Barak government, as Khenin wishes himself to be, Maki and Hadash are seriously defective. First, as a non-Zionist outfit, they have isolated themselves as having ends which stand heterodox to Israel’s main opposition forces – parties like Labor, Meretz, and Kadima; and peace organisation like Peace Now – who all broadly support withdrawal from the West Bank as a means to securing a Jewish and democratic state.

Moreover, whilst the international left Maki represents might not be dead in Israel, it surely surrendered its soul after the Holodomor, after the Prague Spring, after the Killing Fields, after the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square. Khenin repeatedly used the phrase “social justice” to describe the protest’s main message, yet cloaking the Maki and the Hadash faction in the language of the new left cannot obscure the old’s lowly origins, and nor does it entitle them to try and reclaim the moral high ground.